My grandmother, Gladys Wing, was born on Aug. 3, 1910. Which means, as she will proudly tell you, she is currently 103 and a half years old. She started adding the “half” notations after the passed the 100 mark. Now, this in itself is remarkable. But if you actually meet her, you will be floored. Gladys has not lost a whit of her sharpness, her sense of humor, her lust for life. About six months ago, she finally relented and began using a cane. Just recently, she had a bit of a medical set-back, and has been more housebound. But when I spoke to her yesterday, she proudly told me she had used her newly-acquired walker to get downstairs by herself, and spent a lovely afternoon in the garden. In short, she is unstoppable.
Gladys is my father’s mother. We lost him to lymphoma in 2004, when he was only 64. My parents grew up in California, but took off for an adventure to Montana, so I spent my childhood there, visiting my California grandmothers for only a couple of weeks each summer. Then I was off on my own young adulthood journeys, often far away. I was back in Northern California when my father passed away, and I decided it was now time for me to take over those filial duties. Yes, she has two other sons in the area. But I wanted to do this – for him. What I did not realize then was what an incredible gift it would end up being for me. I am her granddaughter, yes. But over the past decade, Gladys and I have become friends, compatriots. It has been magical.
This week, my niece Abbey visited from Wyoming. She is the eldest great-grandchild, and she was celebrating her 21st birthday, off for spring break during her junior year. Four generations of women went out for lunch – Abbey, me, my mom, and Gladys. Gladys was an only child. She had four children, and now has 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Somehow, with that brood, she still manages to send all of us birthday cards, anniversary cards, holiday greetings.
This week, I was reflecting on the two things that most inspire me about Gladys: She has lived a life of service, and still, even now, she focuses on the present moment.
Gladys raised a family, and owned her own business. But for over 50 years, she has been active in service organizations. One of these is the Welfare League. She works a regular Monday shift at the Welfare League Thrift store (in purses and accessories), helping keep the shop in order. With the money that the thrift store raises, they are able each year at Christmas to provide local children with a brand new outfit and toy – last year, 1,200 children were served. They provide scholarships to local students, allow folks to come in and select clothes when needed for a job interview, and have a “clothes closet” for children in low-income families.
The Welfare League also makes layettes for new babies at local hospitals, for young mothers who have few resources. Gladys made those layettes herself for years, buying all the supplies and assembling them in her small senior apartment. There is always a new project: knitting scarves; making baby blankets, both knitted and crocheted; or the current effort, which is knitting lap throws, “for older folks,” as she said to me. Gladys is an expert seamstress, having done that job professionally, and she can knit, crochet, alter, quilt – almost anything you ask of her. And she is still doing all of that, at 103.
She is also a member of The Native Daughters of the Golden West, a group that offers scholarships, and does other community work. “We do projects for people in the service – knit things, like scarves, hats, mittens, vests.” And, she notes, back in the day, these service clubs were much more than social gatherings. Native Daughters even used to have adoption agencies.
Finally, she works with the Santa Rosa Garden Club, where she is the club historian, keeping track of the year’s events and making beautiful binders with photographs and news clippings. She keeps telling them, though, that the two-year commitment is getting to be a bit much each time she re-ups. Her small balcony is abloom with geraniums and other flowers, all evidence of her tender care.
As she said, “There’s always something to do.”
And this other aspect I admire – the focus on the present. So often, elderly people spend their days reminiscing about the good old days, or complaining, “My, what’s the world coming to?” Although she does occasionally utter such phrases, for the most part, Gladys has evolved with the years. When her old sewing machine broke, she bought a new one, which had all kinds of whizzy, tricky parts. She learned how to use it in no time, and got down to business. When her service club hands her a new knitting project (like stretchy hair bands for teenagers), she gamely figures out how to make them and cranks out a dozen, choosing the prettiest yarn. She reads all the local papers, watches the news, and is the first to tell me what might be happening weather-wise for my sister in New York.
Yes, if you ask her, she’ll tell a few tales about the old days. But she doesn’t live there. She wants to know what I’m doing, how my writing life is taking off, if the animals are all OK. She is involved.
And although she may occasionally complain that the dining hall serves chicken too often, or one of the residents in her apartment complex keeps leaving a hall window open, she is much more likely to tell a funny story. Even if the butt of the joke is herself – like the time she spent all day searching for her dentures, only to find them right before bed, in her own bra! We laughed over that one, we did. Laughed until we had tears coming down our cheeks.
This is my example. Every time I see her, I think, “Because of this, I do not have to fear growing old.”