My Centenarian

Monday, November 12, 2012

     There's a little white church a couple miles from my home, with a little old cemetery beside it.  Drive in the gate and you'll find a headstone that reads: "Esther Pitts 1900-2009, A Life of Giving."

     October 31, 2009 was her last birthday. We had 2 days of celebrating--a party with friends on the 30th, and then a party with just the family on the 31st--during which we consumed 3 cakes.  I guess eating 3 cakes was nothing--when Aunt Esther was young she would eat a pound of chocolate on the bus on her way home from work.   

Aunt Esther lived with my family from December 2002 (when I was 8 and she was 102) until she died in December of 2009.  Believe me, living with a woman nearly a century older than I was a very interesting experience!

I met Aunt Esther when I was very young (that's me with my mother, Aunt Esther, and the rabbit ear TV, which by the way is sitting on a rack for phonograph records).  My father had known Esther since 1974, and she had shown many kindnesses to my family and many others (A Life of Giving). 
But my first memory of her is actually a memory of me sprinting down the hallway, an elderly lady in a wheelchair, dark hair pulled back neatly, at my heels, determined not to let me leave without giving her a hug!  Over the next few years I was to learn that love is the purest gift, the freest gift, the most needed gift, and that love doesn't run away.
As Aunt Esther's latest caretaker faced ill health, in 2002, my parents "kidnapped" Aunt Esther from a rest home in La Grande, OR. Spirited across the Rockies in our old Ford Ranger, Aunt Esther joined us in Iowa. My siblings and I had the time of our lives wheeling Aunt Esther around the house, showing her where all the light switches were. Then we settled down for a delicious bowl of steaming vegetable soup. To our surprise, Aunt Esther wanted peanut butter on her soup.  It wasn't long before we caught on to the splendid idea of peanut butter on everything--soup, oatmeal, raisin bran, chocolate, pie, and ice cream. I even took Aunt Esther's ideas a bite further and tried peanut butter on salad--not the brightest combination.
Aunt Esther's scrap books were fascinating, and her stories were too--until we had heard them the umpteenth time.  She told us of how her mother fainted when she saw a woman smoking for the first time (in the 1920's), and of how her mother threatened to make her wear a hat in the house if she ever cut her hair (she said she never even wanted to).  When she was a girl, women were arrested if they wore pants in public. She was born before Wilbur and Orville Wright invented their first "flying machine" (airplane) and before the Titanic sunk.   She received post-cards from her cousin who fought in France during World War 1, but didn't remember the Great Depression very well because both she and her brother kept their jobs during the Depression and didn't face financial difficulties.  
Aunt Esther and co-workers in front of the Laundry where she worked.
  She is tall, wearing a dark sweater, and standing in front of the
"5 Thrifty Services" sign.
She told us of the shortage of alarm clocks during World War II, and how after her alarm clock was stolen she had a friend who had a clock call her so she could wake up and get to work in time.  She was a living history book although a great part of her stories were stories that she had read here or there.  She loved animals, particularly cats, and liked to tell stories of cats that had done extraordinary feats.  My dad has told various stories of Esther when she was younger.  Once a preacher came to town, ran up a bill at the local grocery store, and left town without paying the bill.  All over town people talked about what hypocrites these so-called Christians were.  Aunt Esther walked to the grocery store and payed the bill.  I'm sure she did many other good deeds that no one living now knows of.
While she lived with us, Aunt Esther was hard of hearing and had a voice that could shake the cedars--a good thing if she needed help, a bad thing when she had phantom pains in her amputated leg or argued with my parents. She could be heard from the attic to the basement. Aunt Esther had dementia and because of this seemed to love arguing. One evening when arguing was worst, I went outside to escape the scene and bring in the laundry, and I found that God's great peace is always available for His children, regardless of the circumstances. I also developed an allergy for arguing because, while simple disagreement is good for both sides, repeating "I'm right and you're wrong" one hundred times and in a hundred different ways really convinces a person of nothing but "I'm right and she's wrong!" I learned that one must forgive and forget, because an unforgiven deed develops bitter poison, and time does not heal. Sometimes our dear Aunt Esther would sit up crying about some unkind deed someone had committed 70 or even 100 years before!  
I learned that work is valuable and brings great satisfaction and fulfillment. Though "resting" was one of Aunt Esther's favorite pastimes, too much resting did Aunt Esther no good, and my parents knew it. In the summer, Aunt Esther would hull beans and peas, and shuck corn--and she enjoyed it. In the winter, Aunt Esther would complete laps around the house in her wheelchair, dropping a canning jar lid into an empty oatmeal container as she completed each lap. She also did other exercises. If she kept moving, regardless of her complaints, "This wheelchair is killing me!" and "torture!" she stayed healthy and strong.
By God's grace, Aunt Esther did stay alive and strong for 7 years, telling everyone, "I'm glad I still have most of my marbles!" Nearly every night as I grew from a little 8 year-old to a studious 15 year-old I'd shout "Good night, Aunt Esther, I love you!" sometimes give her a hug, and bound up the stairs. Living with a centenarian was difficult at times, but I'm glad my parents "adopted" Aunt Esther. I learned a lesson of extreme love and patience from my parents and valuable lessons about forgiveness and work from Aunt Esther, and I acquired an undying taste for peanut butter. 
 A sign over Aunt Esther's desk read, "Only one life, 'twill soon be past; only what's done for Christ will last." Even in her senile years, Aunt Esther was a blessing. 
What advice would Aunt Esther give you if she were alive today?  "Do all the good you can while you can, because you never know how soon it will be too late!"  (and yes, I can still hear her intonation of the phrase ringing in my ears as I type).  It's the same advice she gave everyone, and it's true. 
 God calls us to follow him today.  Hebrews 3:15 says, "Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." Today is the day of salvation.  Today is the day to make a difference in this world.  If we wait till tomorrow, it may be too late.


  1. Thank you for the good words. I'm inspired. God bless you.