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Florence asks the searching questions about paths not taken: “Where did all of that creativity go? If I was true to myself, would I have ended up living this ordinary life?”

Florence recently celebrated her ninety-third birthday. On one of my trips to visit her in Pompano Beach, Florence invited her circle of friends over, a group she began in the sixties, which she called her “Women’s Assertiveness Group.” At the height of the feminist movement, the women gathered to talk about asserting themselves in their marriages and their roles as mothers, plus orgasms, spirituality, the whole kitchen sink. The reason for today’s get-together was that one of the women and her husband were moving into an assisted living arrangement.

Once Mad Men-era housewives, now women in their seventies and eighties, many had lost husbands and some were cautiously looking for love and companionship again. Florence was the oldest. Many of the women confided in me that Florence had changed their life.” With her irreverent, independent nature, she had helped them find a place of freedom in their seemingly ordinary lives. On this day, the subject switched to life after death.

Florence was skeptical, but listened, curious as always, as one woman spoke of the heaven she believed was waiting for her.

I asked Florence what, at ninety-three, she wanted to do with the rest of her life. “I’m interested in Buddhism,” she said. On our following visit, I arrived with dark-chocolate-covered orange peel from Russ & Daughters, an old world shop still on the Lower East Side, which has sold smoked fish, bagels, and sweets since 1914. I handed Florence the brown paper bag and a book on Buddhism by Robert Thurman.

I asked Florence why she was interested in Buddhism.

“Buddhism always interested me because of its promise of emotional control,” said Florence. She had never formally pursued it until now. “I did, however, take a course in Transcendental Meditation and meditated for years, then finally gave it up when I realized that I wasn’t doing it right. I remember my mantra and every now and again I try it.”

“Getting your mind to focus and to live in the moment is a rare talent,” Florence admitted. It has been one of her lifelong goals.

“From the diary, I could tell you had a rich internal life,” I told her.

“Also an external life,” she said.

At sixty-two, Florence went back to school and earned a degree in geriatric counseling. “So I could live with my old age,” she told me.

For many years she had seen a Freudian psychoanalyst who had told her sternly, “Your goal in life should be to be a wife and mother.”

“And I was weak enough to believe him,” Florence told me recently.

In the 1960s, she went on a Transactional Analysis group therapy retreat (like something out of the movie Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice). Florence, in her early fifties, was the oldest one in the group. One of the guided exercises was for Florence to close her eyes and feel the face of the partner with whom she had been matched up. Another activity Florence recorded in her notebook:

Write down the kind of flower you are—Tiger Lily
Food—Rare meat
(She saw her partner as a rose–roast beef–collie–quartet.)

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