A few weeks ago, I ventured back to my home state of Indiana to celebrate my great grandma Lela Barber’s 100th birthday. While she doesn’t actually turn 100 until November, July seemed like the perfect month to corral a huge family that’s spread across several states. The celebration was a huge success, if you don’t count the suffocating heat and humidity…but who am I to complain? My great grandma dealt with that business like a champ.
Her milestone has made me stop and think about a lot of things. In her card, I thanked her for the years of beauty and laughter she’s brought to the world. What I couldn’t write in her card was “my goodness, how did you do it all these years?!” I know some of the truth; she’s a tough, no-nonsense lady. She was once a lunch lady at the local school and she tells stories about former students approaching her every now and then. They share memories they have of her and she says to all of us, “Ohhh I can’t remember those kids from Adam! I was busy doing my job.”
She’s sharp as a tack at nearly 100 years – I walked into the party, she hugged me and said “Hi Ashley!” followed by a sarcastic “It is ‘Ashley,’ right?” I wonder where she’s found the strength to face the changes that have defined her lifetime. I wish I could know how she’s managed to remember all the history she’s accumulated – the names of her kids, grandkids, great grandkids, the birthdays, this first steps, the anniversaries…all of the milestones.
She wasn’t able to travel the two hours north for my wedding several years ago so she instead wrote a letter about what she remembered about the day my dad first met me as an infant. Man, oh man, was that a tear-jerker. My mom had me when she was pretty young, and, at the time of my birth, my dad was in South Dakota with the Air Force. From what my mom says, my great grandma’s depiction of that day and experience was pretty spot on. Last year, as the city of Washington, Indiana, was preparing to celebrate their annual Rail Fest, she called the local newspaper to tell stories of the railroad’s economic success in the city, lest anyone forget. I love how she carries all this knowledge with her, and continues to share it with anyone who will listen.
I think what I admire most is how she’s maintained what can only be called sanity, for nearly 100 years. Most of the time, I end my day stressing about what I couldn’t change around me, and wondering if tomorrow truly holds all the answers. And then I remember I should be relishing in all of these small moments, saving them for a great letter to my future great grandchild. Lela is my mother’s fraternal grandmother, and while on this side of my family, longevity is notable (Lela’s husband, my great grandpa Barber, lived to be 96), in other lineage, there is a strong history of Alzheimer’s and dementia. My joke is that it’s likely I’ll live to 90 plus, but I might not know my name for the last 30 years of my life. With that in mind, this milestone celebration for my family has encouraged me to fight for every memory I make, and to keep writing…I might have to share a good piece of forgotten DC history with the Washington Post one day, if I can just remember it…
– Ashley Respecki