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A woman in full flower, not retiring from life

Lillian H. Lam shows her hula skills. She

Lillian H. Lam shows her hula skills. She is also learning the ukulele. Photo Credit: Photo by Timothy Fadek for Newsday

My mother never had time for hobbies because she was always working while raising four kids. When she wasn't at her job, she was sewing clothes, cooking dinner or watching "Perry Mason." If she had dreams of a better life, she kept them to herself.

And then she retired.

Lillian Huie Lam, a shy girl of 7 when she came to this country from China, turned into Superwoman. In her winter years, she has become bold, eager to take on challenges, inclined to say yes and try new things. Every day, she demonstrates that, with the right attitude, you're never too old to change.

It didn't happen overnight, but her transformation has been stunning. Her metamorphosis began after she and my stepfather sold their East Meadow home and moved to a retirement community in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The first time I went to visit, she announced she was in a musical revue. Mom had never been outgoing, but there she was, center stage, wearing a pink poodle skirt and pony tail in a scene from "Grease," hamming it up next to the lead singer. She was 75.

Around family, my mother was relaxed - more a listener than a talker, but in a roomful of strangers, she became a wallflower, never drawing attention to herself. Part of her shyness was the result of a tragic car accident when she was 14. It took a benevolent plastic surgeon and many surgeries to make her look normal again.

Now, decades later, there she was, singing and dancing with the other cast members, snapping her fingers to "Greased Lighting."

Who knew? The woman loves to perform.

"Do the things you enjoy, never refuse anything if it's active," my mother said when I asked her for her philosophy on retirement. "Try new things. I haven't worked except to do the things I enjoy. You keep active that way."

A few years ago, still emerging from her shell, my mother met Gerri Yee, another multitalented woman who lives in the same retirement community.

When she stays in East Northport with her daughter and grandson, Gerri, a transplant from Hawaii, teaches a group of women the hula at St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station, where the Town of Huntington has a satellite senior center. In Florida, she teaches another group the same dances.

Gerri asked my mother to be part of both groups and my mother loved the idea. During the summer, when my mother stays on Long Island with my sister Nancy and her husband, she dances with the St. Hugh group.

This year, Gerri asked the ladies to learn the Japanese folk dance "tanko bushi." In June, the group was in a show at St. Hugh. My mother wore a floor-length, pink kimono she made and then changed to a grass skirt for "Lovely Hula Hands." Our family came to see her dance, and we took pictures, like parents attending their children's recital. She beamed.

Now, Gerri has asked my mother to join two other women in playing a ukulele for next year's show. My son, Matt, gave her an expensive one he bought in Hawaii, so she's ready to learn the song "My Yellow Ginger Lei" when she returns to Florida - if she can find time.

Every day, wherever she is, my mother attacks the puzzle page in the newspaper, filling in every square of the crossword, Sudoku and word scrambles.

In Florida, after breakfast, she and my stepfather head to the gym where she lifts weights (she dismisses aerobics because they make her sweat).

Her time is spent at a weekly computer class, catching a double feature at the movie theater on Friday or Saturday, trying her luck with multiple cards on Bingo night, attending the weekend clubhouse dances and shows, and hitting the penny slot machines.

When her knees aren't giving her a problem, she plays golf -- a sport she learned when she turned 80. It seems there isn't anything she won't try at least once. If she starts to feel stale at one thing (like working as an AARP volunteer helping seniors get their taxes done, which she did for years), she finds something to take its place.

Oh, and there's bowling. She and my stepfather have been on the same team of four for years. Her average is 157 and her goal each year is to earn a league prize.

This year, she won a trophy for the highest combined score in a three-game series. That day, in one glorious game, Lillian Huie Lam, 85, bowled a 223.

I'm amazed and proud of the woman my mother has become, so changed from the person she was when she retired from the post office in 1990 at age 67.

She has a vibrancy now I never detected when she was much younger.

And if I ever hear that old phrase, "You've become your mother," I'll take it as a compliment.

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