Eric Bergeson: Wisdom of the aged Aunt Olive
Flew home from Tucson a few days last week for an early Christmas with family.
I discovered anew why I went to Tucson in the first place. The high temperature during my brief visit home was one degree above zero. Lows hit -25 F.
I dragged my Ford Ranger out of the shed to serve me while back home. The old pickup seemed reluctant, almost arthritic. The starter groaned. The engine died at intersections. It wasn’t the Ranger of those first 250,000 miles, that’s for sure.
“What are you doing back here?” locals asked wearily. Seemed like they had about 250,000 miles on them, too.
I stopped by Fair Meadow Nursing Home to see great-aunt Olive. She’s 102 years old.
I don’t know how many miles that is.
The cold doesn’t bother her.
“I couldn’t have it any better!” she said, as she always says. A warm room. Good food. Good people. A nice rocker.
“I could just sit here forever,” she said.
I call Olive from Tucson, but it is difficult to communicate over the phone, especially when she misplaces her hearing aid.
Two weeks ago, I called and couldn’t for the life of me get her to hear me.
Finally, Olive shouted, “Call again and see if we get a better connection!”
So, I waited five minutes and called back.
“Hello?” Olive said.
“Can you hear me now?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s so much better,” she said. “That other ear isn’t worth a hoot.”
When I tell her I am wintering in Tucson, she tells her two Tucson stories.
Her brother, Uncle Johnny, encountered salsa for the first time in Tucson in 1972. Thinking it was tomato juice, he threw back a whole glass. The salsa was Tucson hot. It nearly finished him off.
A few years earlier, Olive traveled through Tucson and stayed in a resort. She and her travel companions went down by the pool. Ruth, a free spirit like Olla, promptly put her feet up on the furniture, which earned her a withering glare from a resort worker, and a scolding from her sober husband Orville.
Olive and Ruth got the giggles. They had to go outside so they could laugh out loud.
Olive’s father died in 1916 when she was four. His death shaped her childhood.
“Mama didn’t have any discipline,” Olive said. “We did whatever we wanted!”
That included staying up until four a.m. playing whist.
“The neighbor kids all had stern Norwegian fathers,” Olive says. “No nonsense with them!
“But we ran wild.”
“No wonder the kids always came over to our house!” she laughed.
Aunt Olive had a brush with cold weather as a one-room school teacher. A school program ended with the great March blizzard of 1941. Olive engineered a tent made from horse blankets around the school’s wood stove. The kids sang and played games, while Olive kept watch for a chimney fire.
The parents didn’t fear. They knew their kids were in good hands.
“They’re all gone now!” Olive said of her relatives and friends.
“But, I don’t miss them,” she added, philosophically. “They lived their lives.”
People laugh off musings of the elderly. “Oh, she’s so cute,” they say when the old person says something a little shocking, like that she doesn’t miss her friends who have died.
I think we should listen. Aunt Olive has reached 102 years-of-age for one reason: An extraordinary attitude.
She always looks forward. She can’t die yet, she says, she still has a lot of pictures to sort through. She still needs to clean out her closets.
Grief? She has felt it. All six of her siblings have died. So did her husband. Some of her former students in country school, now in their eighties, are passing on. Her step-son is in a nursing home.
But Aunt Olive limits her grief. One time she told me she grieved one of her friends “yesterday morning.” Boom. That was that. End of the mourning period.
So when Olive says she doesn’t miss the departed, I know what she means. I often feel the same way. A completed, honorable life is a beautiful thing, something to be contemplated with gladness.
As she sits in her rocker, her friends are as real to Olive as they were seventy years ago.
Just as she accepts that nobody lives forever, Aunt Olive takes the decline in her physical health in stride.
“My brain is half shot,” she says with disgust. “I have had so many strokes that blood vessels are just hanging loose in there.”
“But what can you expect? I am 102-years-old!”
I decided not to complain about the cold, or my arthritic pickup.