These days, even Codger needs reassurance.
He has Crone, of course, and Cur II, and Cat and Crunch with their families through cyberspace, but sometimes he needs to reach to higher authority. He needs a little comforting chat with his president.
“Let me tell you the real problem with being old in the time of coronavirus,” she said, offering up her signature throaty chuckle. “The back of my ears are just not big enough for my eyeglasses, my hearing aids and the straps of my mask. What should I give up?”
As metaphor for the present situation, Codger thinks that one’s hard to beat, if a little flippant. But then Chris Lewis, Codger’s president, is known for her sly humor as well as her almost unnerving calm and common sense. In her 16 years on the Town Board and 12 on the Board of Education before that, she would offer a no-nonsense, direct engagement with issues and only a mild expression of exasperation at the endless waves of ego, ignorance and verbal flatulence that wash over public life.
Right after deciding not to run for re-election in 2018 (“I wanted to leave them laughing,” she laughed), she was snapped up by the Shelter Island Senior Citizens Foundation and elected president (Codger is her veep). While serious back and hip problems slowed her at first, she led the Foundation’s revitalized fund-raising and the purchase, for the town, of an $85,000 wheelchair-accessible bus.
The bus, like so much else lately, is idling on the outskirts, frustrating Chris’ plans to widen the mission of the Foundation from discrete projects to larger initiatives that could help the entire senior population as well as their families and care givers.
“No question, this is the most trying time in my life,” she said. “Fifty years ago, starting out as a nurse treating polio patients, so many of them children, was hard, but at least you could walk away at the end of your shift, feel safe when you left the hospital.
“This is our lives now. We’re lucky to be in this beautiful place. I have family here with me, I’m not in a small apartment with screaming children, worrying if I have enough money for both food and medicine.”
It seems as though she could have handled that, too, this twice-widowed mother of three born 85 years ago in Indiana in the family farmhouse. She played the alto horn in the marching band under Friday night lights.
Her father told his two daughters to make sure they could take care of themselves. Never become dependent on another person and don’t be afraid of leaving home to see the world. Chris, who dreamed of becoming a nurse in a big city, got her license and headed to New York.
She told Codger she loved being a nurse, helping people in trouble, meeting challenges. She said she was good at it and it gave her self-confidence. She retired after only 50 years because her second husband, Ken Lewis, Sr. was failing and needed care. But with his encouragement she made time for politics and came to love that, too.
“Being on the Town Council was a good time in my life,” she said, “like being back in college, learning, expanding, coming to realize you can’t please everyone and you don’t have to, gaining the courage to have informed decisions.”
And evolving. Like everyone else, she marveled at the men’s performance cooking at the chicken barbecue, but then she began to think more about all the women behind them, making the potato salad, cutting the tomatoes, not getting the same props. Her heroes became Abigail Adams, wife of the second president and mother of the sixth, a strong voice in the founding of the new republic; Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, whom Chris found independent and accomplished. Chris voted for her, though she was disappointed at her standing by her man just a little too long.
These days, she’s been thinking about the healthcare “mess,” particularly the shift in her time from disease-centered to profit-centered treatment.
“Eventually, there will have to be some form of socialized medicine,” she said. “After my back operation, I rehabbed at San Simeon and on the 21st day they threw me out. Because I was all better? No, the insurance ran out.
“I’m not hooked on Percocet or Oxycontin because I can afford medical marijuana, which has far less side effects. But it costs about $4,000 a year.”
By now, Codger was feeling better. At least his president had a grip.
“Actually, there’s little in life I take too seriously. You know, the real problem with old age is the mirror,” she said, crediting Phyllis Diller. “The Peeping Toms ask me to pull the shades.”
Always leave them laughing.