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  • Today my mother would have turned 103, but she only made it to 95. All but the last five or so were pretty good years for her. She married once, had one child, worked most of her life, and spread around a lot of affection. She finally got herself a grandchild, but due to her son's reluctance to spawn, had to wait until she was 90.

    Sophie Dutton survived polio and three different forms of cancer. She never gave in, just wore out - which pissed her off. Because she always refused to think of herself as an old person, it made her grumpy to be confined to a nursing home in her last year with all those other old people. Among other reasons for her depression, she felt few of her fellow residents had much interesting to say, and her old friends who did were not nearby. Some of the dozen or so medications she was on might have had something to do with her fading conviviality too.

    Sophie usually made friends easily, and the older she got the younger her new friends tended to be. That was by design, because she wanted friends who were robust enough to lend her a hand when she needed it. Her modest but comfortable ranch house in Connecticut was open to any and all who wanted to visit, especially if they wanted to take her out to lunch, a movie or a concert, but also to just sit and talk.

    One didn't just talk with Sophie. Oh sure, she gossiped, but her constant habit was to clip articles from newspapers and magazines and hand them out. Visitors had to read and discuss with her, and then digress to what they really wanted to talk about. She had a recliner in her living room next to a table, reading lamp, and stacks of books and publications. Leaning back in her throne, she would orchestrate discourse about health and nutrition, current affairs, war and peace, politics, scientific breakthroughs, and spirituality.

    Sophie was a positive thinker, a meditator and an early devotee of A Course in Miracles. That's a little guide to being aware of the force of love in the universe, which teaches patience, forgiveness and gratitude. When I was struggling with relationships and livelihood she gave me a copy and instructed me to read one passage a day. I was not very receptive and did not stay with the program, but that did not stop her. She would send me clippings and quotes from people like Emmett Fox and Ram Das to brighten my spirits. And it was not just me who received her kind attention.

    In their sixties, Sophie and Dutt founded the first Connecticut chapter of the Phenix Society, a discussion group for people in "the third act of life." It met in their living room for the next 15 years one Wednesday each month. (A recent edition of a book by its founder, Jerome Ellison, describes what the club was about; it was a lot like AA.) Topics ranged from life after death to banning nuclear weapons to mysticism to UFOs. The idea was to bring regular folks together to discuss philosophical and spiritual ideas over cookies and coffee. Most of these people were not intellectuals. Many had not attended college. Some were quite shy and said very little, but kept on coming. They all had plenty of small talk in their lives and were hungry for some large talk, in a non-intimidating setting.

    My parents both had a gift for making people feel valued and interesting to be with. Each had a graduate degree in psychology and had worked as a teacher. In fact, they met while serving as camp counselors, at the summer session of a school for emotionally disturbed children in Madison, Connecticut. On the audio track, Sophie describes how she came to work at that camp and meet Dutt. A month after they met, they were engaged. They married two years later (I don't know what took them so long) and remained together until Dutt died 40 years later.

    Happy Birthday, Mom! We need more like you to boost our spirits when they flag and help us sew our tattered social fabric back together.

    @image: Sophie Pincus, age 26, studio photograph.

    @audio: Excerpt from Sophie Pincus Dutton's oral history, taped in 1980. Her interlocutor, Honor White, was a family friend who later in life married one of Sophie's oldest friends and ended up living a mile away from her.

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