“It isn’t how old you are, but how you are old,” Jules Renard.
On Feb. 1, my mother-in-law passed away. What’s remarkable is that she was a woman not only of exceptional years, 103, but also quite memorable.
Those who met her rarely forgot Margaret Lundy Dell of Bethesda, affectionately called Gaga.
Why Gaga? Well, she didn’t like Granny, so she became a Gaga long before the name gained fame. It stuck and spread from grandkids to friends and even to those who only heard of her. People usually asked me: You’re Gaga’s daughter-in-law, right, never Margaret’s.
Imagine living for a century. Gaga skipped right on past the 100 mark with barely a nod. She was too busy. At 96, she shoveled her snowy sidewalk before we could help; at 99, she could still be seen driving her baby blue Cadillac like a NASCAR driver, her flock of white hair and blue eyes peeking over the steering wheel and at 100, she danced all evening at my daughter’s wedding.
As 101 then 102 rolled around, she made sure she never missed a party or fun trip. During her last few months at 103, Gaga still made plans and asked for her car. New York was on the list. She would look up from her recliner chair and exclaim: “I’m so lucky! I just don’t know how I got so old.”
Maybe because she cared, which meant she always had time for others, never gossiped (that was a disappointment for me), and dwelled only on the positive. Optimism ruled in her house.
When asked how she managed to live so long, Gaga flashed a cheeky smile and answered: “Every day I eat ten golden raisins soaked in cheap gin," always a head-turner of an answer.
They became a staple on the kitchen counter, her gamy panacea languishing in a steadily diminishing film of cheap gin, which she offered to guests with glee.
Since Gaga never drank, her forays into the local liquor stores became legend. One owner rebuffed her, answering with a huff, “Lady, we don’t sell cheap gin.”
If Gaga’s fads waxed and waned, three lifelong passions endured: tennis, knitting and bridge. Tennis was her baby.
Each summer during the Legg Mason Tennis Classic she spent hours watching the matches, all the while knitting countless colorful scarves and hats and staying so long that the staff offered to put her up for the night.
Gaga’s knitting needles rarely stopped and she handed out her creations like calling cards. Eventually they adorned family members and most friends, as well as disadvantaged mothers and babies at the Christ Child Society.
She was a fixture on the tennis courts at Columbia Country Club, in Bethesda, until she was 98 when an old injury sidelined her. She even had a club tournament named after her. Why not, who else was out there hitting balls at that age.
As her partners began to drop out, mostly from old age, Gaga simply picked up her racquet and joined a younger crowd, badgering them to allow her a double bounce. They would have none of it.
If it was too cold to play tennis, she moved indoors at Columbia to join her bridge pals. Gaga played for over 40 years and at 102, as her health waned, we judged its ebb and flow by her card-playing ability. If she could out-deal us in double solitaire, she was back in the game.
EARLIER ON, as Gaga began to slow down, I thought she should speed up, believing in the value of exercise, and so suggested walks.
It was usually during that quiet time after dinner, when the lights in her neighbors’ homes glowed around us, that we strolled into her world of memories. She and her husband raised their four children in a house across the street from Bethesda’s Edgemoor Club, where they played tennis. Once the boys began to play tournaments, referees prayed that Gaga, who was known for stopping the match and taking her boys home for lunch, would be busy elsewhere.
Eventually, as the walks grew slower, the moments grew richer and I wanted to hold on to them for my mental scrapbook. It was those moments and the ones we spent alone together that will always remain my most treasured.
I can still picture us playing cards or watching TV, her needles clicking away until she, or we, fell asleep. If we stayed awake, we’d dig into the myriad boxes of chocolate that always remained within an arm’s reach of her recliner and talk of old times, which usually meant her memorable tennis matches. One stood out.
It was a scorching summer the year Margaret, then 96, played a mixed doubles tennis exhibition during the Legg Mason tournament — one of those pro/am matches meant to highlight someone famous. It was her dream day.
During the warm up, her partner, a wiry 89-year-old chap ran around the court and tried a few jumping jack tricks in the heat. He looked at Gaga the way a potential buyer looks at an old carthorse that had seen better days. She stared back, undaunted.
No slouch when it came to shrewd tennis strategy, Gaga let her partner burn up the court during the match. The faster he ran; the slower she moved and she gamely returned the shots that came her way.
Then, it was over. Her partner collapsed on the court leaving Gaga standing over him calling for help. As they carried him off, she gave the crowd a championship wave and trotted to the net to shake hands for the both of them.
I could go on and on about Gaga, about her indomitable spirit and her devotion to daily mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church; her love of children who followed her like puppies, about the time she drenched some teenagers stealing her flag by throwing a bucket of water from her upstairs window and about her never-ending zest. She was beautiful in that timeless way because of the life she led. Gaga was my mother-in-law, my mentor and my best friend.