Babette Hughes says of all the times in her life, this is by far the best.
The Austinite is 97 and just published a book called "97 Speaks: Lessons From the Decades." It’s her eighth book and second memoir.
Over the last 10 years, she says, "I just discovered how I loved to write. In a way, it’s a love/hate thing, but mostly love."
In this stage of her life, she says, she feels "more together, more optimistic."
"There is some deep level that is satisfied by being creative," she says.
Her life has delivered plenty of material, some of which made it into the book.
She has no memories of her father, who was a bootlegger and killed by the mafia outside their Cleveland home on her second birthday. It made the local newspaper, but it was an event her family didn’t really talk about. "The story my mother told about him was such a lie, such a secret," she says. "It was such a shame."
Secrecy always surrounded what really happened. Hughes eventually read the real story in a newspaper after going to the public library as a child to look it up.
The shame, the secrecy, the anger toward her father, she says, "I’ve been able to let it go. It’s one of the most important things I’ve done in my life."
If you can let go of hurt and anger, "it’s so very, very helpful." If you can’t let it go, she says, "you are stuck in it."
Today, she thinks of her father as somewhere up in the sky, "and he’s looking out for me," but she has very mixed feelings about him, still. "He took terrible chances," she says, which proved disastrous for his family.
Growing up, she says, her life was very different from the lives of other kids around her. "Everyone had a father," she says. "No mother went to work like my mother did."
Her mother was also coming from a place of trauma herself, having grown up in an orphanage after Hughes’ grandmother faced mental illness.
She says her mother was distant and also made her think that she wasn’t very smart. "She would tell me that ’it’s better to be good looking like you than to be very smart,’" Hughes says.
When she was 16, her mother made Hughes quit high school to become a model. She hated it, she says, because it was boring, "but I was under her spell. I did everything she told me to do. ... I was very frightened of her."
Modeling didn’t help her self-confidence, either.
Her escape came at age 19 in her first husband, who was not a good match.
She thinks about what would have happened if her father had not taken the chances he did. She thinks she wouldn’t have left high school, she would have graduated, she would have done something she loved like teaching writing. She would not have been so desperate to get out of her home situation with her mom and into another bad situation with her first husband.
During her first marriage, she went into daily therapy for five years. "When I went into therapy, it wasn’t to get real," she says. "It was to be a better person so my husband would treat me better."
In the book, she posts a magazine article from 1955 about all the things a good wife was supposed to do. She tried, but that wasn’t going to work for her.
Therapy, she says, "saved me. I would have gone bonkers."
The therapist suggested she go back to school. She did at age 33 and took a creative writing class.
She divorced the first husband when she was 44, which was not common at the time. In fact, one friend told her to do what she had done, which was to take a lover rather than divorce.
"I could not live there anymore," Hughes says. "He never accepted (the divorce), but he couldn’t stop me."
It was 1967. Her sons were in college and a senior in high school. Her daughter, Lisa, was 11. "She was very angry with me," Hughes says. "She’s nice now."
When Hughes went to college, she thought she would do social work, but she took an aptitude test, which pointed out that working with words and writing was her strength.
She wrote a novel at the time, but it didn’t get published. She says she realized she wasn’t a good enough writer yet.
After the divorce, she didn’t know if she could support herself, but she had to. She got a job in public relations for Revco pharmacy.
And she made it on that job and some alimony. There was a brief failed second marriage, and then she met Jamie Hughes.
"He was so generous," she says.
They met in Washington, D.C., where she was working at the time. He was in the oil business, and when he was relocated to Houston in the mid-1980s, he moved Babette to Austin and commuted each week. "He knew I would be happier," she says, in Austin than in Houston.
Her kids grew to adore Jamie Hughes, she says.
Two years ago, he died from Alzheimer’s disease. It was difficult because the disease made him not who he was, she says.
They were married for 36 years.
"He was the love of my life," she says.
The reality around her father’s death was hard. As was the death of Jamie Hughes. Hardest of all was the death of her two sons, and the isolation she felt. Son Eric died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Steve died of emphysema, both about a decade ago. Daughter Lisa lives in New York.
"People are afraid to hear about something so terrible," she says of the death of her sons. "They don’t want to upset you. That makes it hard for the loss you want to talk about."
It took her a long time to write that chapter, and she kept writing and rewriting it. "It gave me lots of clay to work with," she says.
She knows the next death will probably be her own. "I think I am comfortable thinking about my own death, which can’t be far from now," she says.
She wants to be cremated, but her family can decide what they want to do. "Death is for the living," she says. "I’ll be gone."
Growing older has given her a different perspective on the world, she says.
At this time in anyone’s life, she says, "you get a chance to have a second way to live. You know yourself."
She says she has more freedom, more wisdom, more choices. There’s no pressure. She gets to decide what she wants to do.
"It’s the little things that make your day," she says. "I don’t have any bad days."
She has good friends and hosts a salon to talk about what they’re interested in. Of course, everybody is younger than her, but that makes her lucky, she says. She learns from them.
"The culture always has negative ideas about aging," she says. "This is a shame. This can be the best years."
Of course, there are difficulties, like the aches and pains. Hughes started using a walker recently, and she sees a dentist regularly because, she says, she’s outlived her teeth.
She does miss Jamie, and sometimes she’s lonesome, but she loves to read and write.
Growing up with secrets and lies taught her to live an authentic life. "It’s wonderfully freeing when you accept yourself," she says. "Living authentically is freeing."
In life, she says, "as you overthrow what life throws out at you, I think you learn something."
When she was 89, she was pulled over for driving while intoxicated after a wine dinner. The incident made the paper, and it was embarrassing, Hughes says. She’ll never drive after a wine dinner again. In fact, she gave up driving a few years ago.
"Older people have stories," she says, and some of hers are in "97 Speaks."