Friday, August 6, 2010

Ninety years strong

     What do you call a 93 year old woman who still cleans her own bathrooms, plants a massive garden, cans and freezes enough vegetables to last several winters,  provides all the maintanance and  upkeep on her own house plus her childhood home, and  hosts a family reunion each year for 80 to 100  relatives?  In this part of the cotton patch, you'd call her Aunt Virginia. You'd feel lucky to know her, you'd greatly admire her, you'd try to emulate her, and you'd have plenty of stories to tell about her. 
      Virginia Spence was a red-headed spitfire whose Irish parents immigrated to America the old-fashioned way-- legally. They worked hard to earn their American citizenship and then instilled a work ethic in their brood of twelve that would shame most modern day Americans, if shame were still a recognizable emotion. They were everyday Americans who worked tirelessly, lived honestly, served patriotically, gave selflessly, saved frugally, worshipped dutifully, loved deeply, and built America into a nation you could be proud of.
     Virginia married Henry, a Dutchman from Wisconsin,  and they settled down in the house they built on the Spence family farm. Their home was quiet and orderly until the day a noisy family with four little kids moved into the house two fields down-- kids who quickly discovered the excitement of living next door to a couple who had no children of their own. We spent every day running across those fields to bang on their screen door, hollering to ask if anybody was home, begging them to let us come in. It was a treat to enter a home where children were still a marvel, where quiet and order had never been upended by a pack of rowdy youngsters.  They let us plow through their home, run wild through their yard, explore their barns and woods and fields, climb their trees, pick their flowers, and dig in their gardens. We held screaming contests in their front yard, yelling our heads off to see who could be the loudest. We chased lightening bugs under their pecan trees and dared each other to go to the cemetery in the woods where the Spence clan rested in peace. We stomped through their cow pastures and swam in their creek. We cut every Christmas tree we ever had from the woods behind their house and built secret forts out of the old cedar branches afterwards.  We asked to eat supper with them or spend the night with them so often that they finally decided they had to either shoot us or adopt us. Thankfully for us, they decided to adopt us as their own, and the family bond was forged.
     Each summer, they dragged us across the country on vacations with them, took us camping and hiking, taught us to plant and grow our own vegetables, remembered our every birthday, celebrated every holiday with us, and loved us like we were their very own.  Aunt Virginia and Uncle Henry have been part of our family for so long now that I forget to remember when they weren't actually kin.
    Of course, they have real relatives, the blood kind that you don't get to pick but you have to put up with anyway and try to love in spite of it.  The remaining descendants of the original dozen gather yearly on the old family grounds to feast, catch up, swap photos and stories, and reminisce.  And now, it's August, and in several weeks upwards of 80 real Spence relatives will be arriving at Aunt Virginia's home for their annual family reunion and picnic.
     It's a lot of work for anyone, especially the over-ninety crowd, but she has hosted this gathering for many years, loves doing it, and goes about it with the Irish-American work ethic her parents taught her at an early age. To prepare for the influx of cousins, she and Uncle Henry engage in a pre-reunion regime that is exhausting just to describe.
      First, she cleans her own home. Top to bottom.  Spit and shine clean, the kind where you use elbow grease and can see your reflection in tabletops afterwards. Every corner is cleaned, every cobweb and dust bunny unsettled, every nook and cranny polished. Next, the Spence family home gets the same treatment. It is opened and aired from top to bottom, creaky old windows sliding up to let dusty air escape. Every bathroom is scrubbed, every bed stripped, every dish in the kitchen washed, every utensil polished, every floor waxed and buffed.  She has Uncle Henry running all over creation with a whole separate list of chores. Walls are repainted and windowpanes washed. Tables and chairs are set up on the lawn, tents are erected, grass is cut, trees and hedges are trimmed, and kitchens in both houses are stocked with casseroles and cakes and pies. This takes place every year, without skipping a single step or taking a single shortcut. It's the Irish-American way, and it's how she does things.
   At age 90, several months before the scheduled reunion,  Aunt Virginia injured her back while cleaning and needed  surgery to repair a few disintegrating vertebra. The orthopedic surgeon announced that as a general rule, he did not operate on 90 year old backs, but when he met Aunt Virginia, he had no option but to procede with surgery. His exact words were, " When I heard that a 90 year old was coming in for a consultation, I thought it would be for pain management and perhaps some therapy, but when Virginia told me what her activities were on a daily basis, I knew I had to fix that back. I couldn't let someone as active and alert as Virginia face the rest of her life in a wheelchair." She sailed through surgery, some rehab, and was back in action in time to get the spring garden planted and the house put in order before the August reunion.
   Last year, she faced a bout of cancer on her leg and developed a lesion on her toe that ate the flesh clear to the bone. She required several rounds of radiation treatments which left her a little exhausted and spending most of the day in a wheelchair. With the upcoming reunion  only weeks away, time was running short and there was much to be done. Knowing that she would not let me just show up to help, I gave her an early birthday present, one she could not refuse--the gift of cleaning her house and helping her get ready for the reunion.  One particular chore was weighing heavily on her mind.
     Being still confined to a wheelchair, Aunt Virginia had been especially worried about getting the long  hall floor polished, the one that ran smack dab through the center of her house.  I told her not to worry, I'd be glad to give it a polish. When I offered to help, I was thinking that I would squirt some Mop-n-Glo on the floor and give it a once-over with a Swifter. Not the Irish-American way, I soon learned.  First, the rugs had to be rolled up, the floor swept and vacuumed and mopped, then a coat of wax  had to be hand-applied.  I tackled all that and thought I was finished, until Aunt Virginia told me I needed to come back in three days after the wax had hardened to do the buffing. 
     Three days later, I arrived to find a monster machine waiting in the hall, big buffing pads ready to whir up and down the hardwood. It was actually kind of fun, running that stainless steel buffer up and down the hall, trying to hold on without being vibrated to death.  I visualized it as a cellulite-reducing exercise, convinced the vibrations of the machine were just melting away globs of fat as it shook every inch of my body.  I buffed that baby to a shine that would put a bowling alley to shame. Made me want to pull a Tom Cruise and glide across the floor in my socks and underwear while belting out "Old Timey Rock-n-Roll."
     And now, at age 93, while once again preparing for the upcoming August reunion, Aunt Virginia took a major tumble while cleaning the shower. She slipped on some soapy tile, knocked her head on the way down, and crushed her shoulder and elbow. It's been a bit of a set-back for her reunion regime. Black and blue, she is back again in her wheelchair, damaged arm dangling by her side, waiting for another round of visits to the orthopedic surgeon. I pray it is the same one she had before, and that he can put her back together before her company arrives.  She has things to do, mind you, and needs to get busy.
  We called to check on her this morning, and she was wheeling around the house doing some one-armed cleaning from her wheelchair. I've always been told a little hard work never killed anyone, but that has got to be painful.  I have no doubt, however,  that when the crowd rolls in for the August gathering, the house will be in perfect condition and the cupboards will be stocked, the beds will be made and the porch will be swept.
     So what do you call a 93 year old woman like that? A woman who for nine decades has never slowed down, never sat down empty-handed, never left a chore unfinished, never shirked a responsibility, never taken off for a little "me-time," never once thought she should call it quits? A woman who is ninety years strong and as alert and independent and active as an 18 year old? A woman who won't let a little thing like a few broken bones or a touch of cancer slow her down? A woman who in her nineties still plans a year ahead for the next family reunion which she will be hosting?
      I call her amazing, an inspiration, a dynamo, a role model.
      I call her Aunt Virginia.


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