She was 103, but to me she was only about 5.
Because 5 or 6 years ago, I got an email from a relative letting me know that my Great-Great-Aunt Olive had been enjoying my stories about China.
“Great-Great-Aunt Olive?” I thought. “My Great-Grandpa Ferdig’s sister? No way.”
Yes way. And she lived in the Twin Cities not too far from me.
That spring, I visited her for the first time at her senior living facility in South St. Paul. I didn’t know what to expect from the 97-year-old. I certainly didn’t expect to encounter a spry woman who opened the door, welcomed me inside, offered me tea and dessert, and was eager to chat.
I arrived as family, but the journalist in me surfaced. I’d return soon after for a proper interview with Aunt Olive, who opened up about growing up in a big family in northern Minnesota pre-electricity. In summers they stored their milk in a hole in the ground to keep it cool. An airplane would drop their mail. Traveling preachers would come knocking on their door. One winter, when she was starting a family of her own, she went into labor. So they rushed her to the nearest hospital–by horse and sleigh.
Olive told me about her father and mother–my great-great-grandparents. Turns out Great-Great-Grandpa Ferdig was a drinker and wanderer, moving the family all about the upper Midwest. Olive even recalled to me her grandfather–my Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Ferdig. Whoa.
More recent in her past, she and husband Roy raised their family in the Twin Cities–she a homemaker and he working long, hard days in the meat-packing plants of South St. Paul.
I’d write this story about her life and receive comments on my blog from Olive’s descendants in Minnesota, Montana, and California. The numerous family members who cherished her were also evident a month or so later when they filled the event room at her apartment building for Olive’s 98th birthday.
This scene would be repeated for birthday #100 and smaller gatherings subsequent years. Also repeated would be my visits. I’d bring her a gift from another country or for Christmas. She once gave me a tissue box holder she fashioned. She loved arts and crafts. She even made me one of her famous crocheted blankets.
Many friends and readers have gotten a kick out of seeing my photos with my 100+ year-old, four-and-a-half feet tall Great-Great Aunt. She got a kick out of posing for photos, each time expressing her amazement that my camera (phone) could display such a clear image instantly.
The last time I visited Olive was in June for her 103rd birthday.
This might sound funny, but her age was starting to catch up to her. She needed a walker. Olive’s family (to her disappointment) was now having a nurse come by twice a week to check on her. I guess whether it’s at 80, 90, 100, or 103, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Three months after that visit (about two weeks ago) Olive’s family moved her into an assisted living facility. Then on the morning of Friday September 22, Olive passed away.
As the trunk of our living family tree, Olive brought distant branches of relatives together. But more than that, she had a way of making everyone else feel more alive. She was inspiration. I think others thought, “If 100+ year-old Olive can fix her own meals and make a blanket from yarn, why can’t I have a little more bounce in my step?” This spark will be greatly missed. And I’m sorry to say I’ll have no more updates from my Great-Great Aunt Olive to share.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that on that first day of autumn, this part of the tree should fall back to the earth. And like the leaves that land on the ground to nurture new growth, may she in memory continue to inspire our growth, our appreciation for life, and our role as family elders. Thank you, Aunt Olive.
Truth be told, it was never “fun” visiting my Great-Great Aunt. It was deeper than that. It was about appreciating life–life of past generations, life as a brief undertaking, life as something that undergoes much change. SO LET THIS BE A REMINDER TO OTHERS: visit the elders in your life. Look beyond fun. Because another sad truth is that it’s lonely at the top. Olive (and I’m guessing many old folks) wanted guests more often than they’d come.
And If you’d be willing to share picture of you with a family elder, please send it to email@example.com. I’ll share them in this week’s Sunday Evening Post, my weekly letter to family, friends, and readers. If you’re not already included in this community, email me to join this list.