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I have a wonderful neighbor, Kay, who at the age of 97 is a marvel. She stops in to see me every once in a while when she’s out picking up her mail. Walking isn’t easy. She walks with a cane over a rough driveway, and up and down her apartment ramp and mine. It isn’t an easy trip but she does it out of the goodness of her heart, considering herself less disabled than I.
We used to play scrabble, a game we both love since we are word people. We haven’t played in a while and I miss the fun we used to have. She’s had to cut back on some of her activities. Not too many months ago she was constantly busy crocheting items of great beauty for her large family, while making quilts, simultaneously. I think she’s still baking bread, another of her pastimes.
She reads the paper every day and watches some TV, especially the news. Her mind is sharp as a tack, her opinions strong and vigorously expressed. Since we are in complete agreement on political and social matters, we enjoy venting our spleens together.
Over the years we’ve been friends I’ve enjoyed her memories. Her stories about her past life are fascinating. Just think about the changes in living she’s experienced. She’s had three husbands and six children. Three of her children were from her first husband, and three by her second. I haven’t yet counted all her grand children and great grand children.
Regrettably, she’s not very well at the moment, but doesn’t complain. She even laughs when telling me about her conversation with a hospital nurse during her recent hospital stay. The nurse was trying to get her to do some in-bed aerobic exercises and she told the nurse, “If I were a horse in my condition, you’d take me out and shoot me, and you want me to do aerobics?”
I recently told her that I intended “interviewing” her about her life, so I could record her biography for her family. She never has kept a journal, so future generations will not know about her. At first she demurred, but this morning she came over and we started. We worked until she became too tired but will do more when she can. She lives alone and her family checks in on her every day, so she doesn’t want to be away from the phone long enough for them to panic, especially since she’s had a couple of mini strokes lately.
Her family background is interesting. Her father’s name was Gifford. His grandfather was a British Lord who gave him, as second son, a piece of family property in Canada. After settling there to live, he married and Indian woman.
Kay’s father was born in Maine, as was her mother, whose parents came from Ireland. Her father worked as a river logger and then as cook in the logging camp. Her mother graduated from a teacher’s college, became a teacher, and then was appointed a school superintendent in a district with 5 towns and 25 schools.
Since both parents were working, she lived with her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a station master and telegrapher for the railroad and Kay, an only child, has wonderful memories of being allowed to ride the train free and spending time at the station house with her grandpa.
Her mother was with her on weekends and time off. She was talking, this morning about her mother having to visit all the schools, driving in a carriage with a big white horse until she bought a Model T Ford when Kay was five. She remembers the day her mother drove up to the door for the first time. The “Lizzie” was bright and shiny and the upholstery smelled so good.
She also recalls time when she would sit on her mother’s lap and steer while her mother worked the pedals and gearshift. Often, it was her job to crank the engine, which she had to handle so carefully in order to avoid a broken arm. When it was cold, she also had to pour boiling water over the manifold – all this when a very little girl.
She started driving when she was eight, on a dirt track around the house. She didn’t get a license until she was in teacher’s college, at age 18, although she had been driving everywhere for years.
We ended the morning after covering her first school years and entrance into college. There were no kindergartens in her day, but she went to school, (in one room) at age 7, with older kids, and “listened.” She loved carrying her noon meal with her. She entered the first grade at the age of 8, which was the average age at that time, and would be a much more intelligent age today, according to many educators.
I’m looking forward to the next “chapter”. I’ve heard some of the stories but I want more and in her words. I do know she played the violin. She divorced her first husband after ten miserable years and worked as a schoolteacher to support her kids. In the summers she worked as a cook in a vacation camp owned by a Boston schoolteacher and occupied by interesting professional people, all of whom she came to know and like. The feeling was apparently mutual, and with good reason.
I’d like to finish my work and distribute it to members of Kay’s family, so they will realize what a gem she is, and how many wonderful hours they could have spent reliving her life with her.
If you have someone in your family, or have a friend in his or her nineties, take the time to learn how they, things, and people used to be. You’ll never regret it, and you may be surprised.
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