My great-aunt Irene turns 81 tomorrow. I'm not sure what I'm going to be like at 81, or if I'll still be on this earth, but I hope I'll have some fire left in me when I get there. I've always wondered how Irene has stayed so youthful, so energetic, while others have aged more or passed away sooner. This is her story (as I've come to know it).
Irene is the oldest of five children, born to German parents on a farm in Freeburg. Two of her siblings are dead, including my grandmother. Growing up on a farm, you had to work hard to survive. She worked the fields, she helped with the kids, she cleaned. When her mother finally died, she left all the farm land and it's contents to the oldest male. The daughters got nothing.
When she finally married in her 20's, she moved into town with her husband and worked at a factory. She drank. She smoked. She caroused. At 26, the doctor's removed a tumor in her womb, but for a few months they weren't certain if it was a fast-growing tumor or a baby. She mourned for a long-time that this choice was taken away from her.
When the drinking got bad enough that it also turned into fighting, she quite drinking all together. She went to mass on Saturday nights. She decorated her home with trinkets and things not found in a farmhouse. She became a widow, twice, because of cancer.
She only washes her face with Dove soap. Her garden is the nicest in town. She cleans like crazy, drinks coffee day and night, smokes, and is the first to help out when people are in need. When I was born, and my mother was still undecided about adoption, Irene volunteered to keep me and love me. She bought all new baby clothes for me even after she knew I would never be her daughter, or live in her home.
She used to give me Wrigley's Spearmint gum, my own five-piece pack, when I would come to visit. You could drink soda or coffee in her house, no matter what your age. At the parish picnic, she's worked the BINGO stand for the last sixty years. But she stopped going to mass when the misconduct was rampant and it hit too close to home. You don't hurt kids, she'd say, end of story.
No matter what our story, I guess the secret might be the fire within us, the passion that keeps us moving forward instead of looking back. It's what keeps us young. She knew that. Still does.