Gray Area: 25 mirrors: Deciding who to be in old age

Published: Monday, Oct. 27 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Laura Briggs, back, and the Music Makers perform at the Liberty Senior Center. She took part in the "Senior Idol" contest in April and says she's inspired by the Young@Heart singers.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Laura Briggs bought the first mirror at a drugstore in Phoenix, and in the years since then, after moving to Salt Lake City, she has added another 24. Now they're all nailed to the walls of her tiny apartment, exactly at eye level if you're a person who doesn't stand.

Don't be afraid to look at yourself, they remind her. And while you're at it, don't be afraid to look inside the plastic envelope taped to the back of your front door, at the instructions announcing that Laura Briggs is donating her body to science. She has written her name on the donor form, holding the pen in her crippled hand. She once asked an artist at the downtown Farmers Market to draw a portrait of those hands, the fingers bent at odd angles like a Rockette's legs in midkick.

Aging, death, your body: Don't turn away. For good measure, wear a yellow plastic flower in your hair.

On a spring afternoon, Laura eases her motorized wheelchair up to two men who are playing chess in the low-income senior high-rise where she lives — a concrete building that has all the charm of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War but is home to the Friendly Neighbor Senior Center.

One of the chess players, Harvey Wilhelmsen, describes himself as "what you might call a loner." Friendly Neighbor is more of a name than a concept for Harvey, who says, "The fewer I know their name, the better," although he adds that there was one woman he got to know pretty well. "And then she died. She was teaching me to play the piano."

"Since I've lived here," chimes in a man named Robert Hellesen, who is resting on his walker while he watches the chess game, "I've known about 25 people that have gone pfffft."

Laura doesn't play chess, but she likes to visit and to philosophize, so she has a question for Harvey: "At what age did you get the certainty that people weren't going to last long and you weren't either?" When Harvey doesn't answer, Laura says, "In a way it's kind of exhilarating. Do you feel that way? That since you know your time is limited it increases your enjoyment?"

Still, it's always startling to hear that someone upstairs had a heart attack and nobody found his body for three days. That's why Laura and her neighbors on each side, Pauline and Hildegard, came up with a system: hang a doily on your doorknob at 9 every night, then take it back inside at 9 the next morning. If the doily is still on the door after that, investigate.

Laura looks around sometimes and worries that too many of her neighbors never do anything, that they've given up on life. She wants to create what she calls "a climate of possibility." Sometimes she takes TRAX downtown to get free opera and symphony tickets for her neighbors.

Last April she signed up for the countywide "Senior Idol" contest, an older person's version of the popular TV show, and then she practiced her song in the dining hall in front of some of her friends. Later at the contest, she performed "Cry Me a River," didn't win a prize and spent 90 minutes, bundled up against the blustery day, getting herself and her wheelchair home on the bus.

Sometimes she sits in front of one of her mirrors and practices smiling. On Tuesdays she gets her hair done in the beauty parlor in the basement. "I've made myself a committee of one to make myself the most glamorous old person I can be," she says. Old age often makes a person shrink, physically and emotionally. At 78, she explains herself this way: "I feel the need to be larger than life."

When Laura first started buying the mirrors, she didn't really have a plan for them. This was not long after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and things weren't going so well. By then she had already fled an unhappy marriage in Idaho, had moved to Hollywood so her youngest daughter could study acting, and had worked as an executive housekeeper for several wealthy families in Beverly Hills.

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