Tuesday, July 9, 2013

To Live Ninety Years

I can't imagine living ninety years, but health experts tell us our generation can even expect to see more centenarians.  Official projections are that one in three babies born in 2012 will live to see one hundred birthdays or more.

At thirty-six and in the throws of raising children, sometimes just the thought that I'm perhaps not even halfway through this life can be overwhelming.  I already see a doctor for arthritis in my writing shoulder and a compressed disk in my neck.  Then I watch my Grandmother and her level of pain; it's then I'm convinced that one hundred years on this earth may not be a goal of mine.

For her, the years click by, one by one stealing a friend here, a family member there, a lifelong husband...until she is alone, the only one left of her era.  With the death of a close friend earlier in the year,  her small circle grows even smaller until inviting everyone her age to a birthday party is actually feasible.

Last week, my Grandmother reached that ninety-year milestone in her life.

We celebrated, giving her the thing she loves most--an afternoon of time with her family.  Instead of cards and other material possessions, the nineteen of us wrote letters and gathered just a glimpse of her as captured over ninety years worth of photographs, all assembled together in a scrapbook celebrating her life as well as the love and appreciation of a family.

In my memory, she has never been young, always old enough to sit on the sidelines instead of being in the middle of whatever game we were playing.  She was opinionated but never the one to dominate an animated conversation, especially in a large family full of three daughters and their seven children.  She and Grandfather were the spiritual heads of our family, her Sunday School book and Bible ever open on the kitchen table each Saturday afternoon.

And yet, there before me are grainy black and white photographs of a little girl riding on a cow with her uncle standing nearby.  As I crop and mat these photographs taken with an old box camera, I find myself constantly asking my mother which one is Grandmother.   I can't tell.

My mother points out a lanky girl in her early teens with a serious expression and a low-brimmed hat.  The next is of a beautiful twenty-something girl with shoulder-length hair and a trim waistline.  She is running and laughing, the carefree happiness of youth splashed across her face.  Another is of this same girl shortly after she married my grandfather, her shirt tied high in a knot across her stomach to reveal a scandalous bit of skin.

I find I don't know this Grandmother.  This isn't the always mature woman who held me each day as a baby, who taught me to make Easter nests out of flowers and grass, who patiently rolled her hair in pink curlers each time I slept over at her home. 

In thirty-six years, I've never seen her with a different hair style, have never seen her move anything but slow, and have never seen her wear anything less than short sleeves and a full, knee length skirt.

As I assemble those photographs, I determine that to live ninety years is to live past the time when people knew what you were like when you were just you, not Mrs. Wife, Mother, or even Grandmother, but just you.  It is to live past those who knew you before children, before the lack of spontaneity set in once the responsibilities made life more rigid, before the body's deterioration left you unable to do everything you once did.

Living ninety years is to perfect the art of losing people.  But it is also a long time to craft a legacy to leave behind. And her legacy?  It is of a woman who always put her family and her Jesus first.

After the party, I look at a photograph my husband took of her and me.  No longer is there a gulf of years between us.  Instead, I look in her face and see my own.  The nose, the smile, the roundness of face and broad forehead. We are suddenly so much the same.

If God chooses to let me live another fifty years, I wonder if I will have had the grace she has shown when living through all of life's losses.  I can only pray that like her, I, too, will stay the course and leave behind a legacy of faith in Jesus and devotion to family for those who comes behind me.

All too soon, it could be my grandchildren looking back at photographs of me or reading these blog entries and shaking their heads in disbelief, never really knowing that young girl in the pictures.

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