When my family celebrated my great-grandmother’s 80th birthday in October 1966, she must have seemed like a survivor, the heart of the family tree.
There might also have been a undertone of uncertainty to the celebration. After all, 80 years was a long haul by 1966 standards, and surely someone in Pauline J. (Krebs) Blumenau’s orbit must have wondered how much longer the family matriarch would be around. (She had already outlived her husband by 43 years.)
The National Center for Health Statistics says that a white female reaching age 75 in 1961, as my great-grandmother did, had an average of 9.28 years of life remaining.
“Grossee” — the nickname is short for grossmutter, German for “grandmother” — had used up more than half of those 9.28 years in October 1966, and would have been statistically on track to pass away sometime late in January 1971.
What happened next is a reminder not to put too much faith in statistics.
My great-grandmother lived almost three more decades, dying at age 107 in July 1994. She was born the same year as the patent of the first successful gas-driven automobile, and lived into the age of the Internet.
Even more remarkably, she was able to live a pretty good life for all but the last year or two. She didn’t get around that well, but her mind was still sharp, and she stayed active doing small kitchen tasks for many years. (This picture shows her on the job circa 1981.)
Grossee played organ in church in her younger years, and augmented the family income for many years by giving piano lessons. She gave my father his first instruction in piano; 40 years later, she would sit in her favorite chair and listen quietly as he played her favorites.
From time to time, we would press Grossee for family memories. While nibbling Tato Skins chips (a favorite of hers), she would talk about the little store her family operated in Springfield, Mass., in the early years of the 20th century; or about Otto Baab, a piano dealer and tuner she’d known decades before, also in Springfield. She would sometimes be tickled by the notion that his name was spelled the same way backwards or forwards.
My grandfather, the keeper of the calendar, was her only living child. She had been pregnant with a second son when her husband died in 1923, but the child, named Edwin, lived less than a month.
This was not a subject brought up in the family recollection sessions, and I was only dimly aware of it as a kid. I can only imagine how devastating it must have been to lose both a husband and a child in the same year, while still being responsible for raising a teenage son. The soft-spoken, shawl-clad, cookie-baking woman of my childhood must have had an inner strength I never knew; I share her personal travails only as a way to fully acknowledge that.
Grossee could also, on occasion, be firm in her opinions. In my teenage years, when I grew my hair long, she once appraised my new look by calling me a “haarich azel” — German for “hairy asshole.”
I got very little flak in general society for wearing my hair long, presumably because the young men of the ’60s and ’70s had paved the way. But one centenarian lady made it crystal-clear that she had no use for the fashion. I’ll always remember that — with a smile, I might add.
My grandparents took care of Grossee as long as they could, with admirable dedication. But by the early ’90s, they were both elderly themselves, and my grandpa had had two heart attacks. Reluctantly, they found a place for Grossee in a local nursing home, and visited as often as they could.
Some people mentally check out as soon as they move to a nursing home; but my memory is that Grossee remained pretty well with it for a year or so until her age inevitably began catching up with her.
I don’t remember if she had a secret to long life, except to take things one day at a time and not worry too much. On one wall of my grandparents’ house hung a stitched German proverb: “Take life as it happens, but try to make it happen the way you want to take it.” I’m not sure that was exactly my great-grandmother’s mantra, but it always reminds me of her when it crosses my mind.
I have been remiss in not specifically mentioning Grossee in my earlier blog entries. Wherever my grandparents went, I imagine Grossee went with them, and she was present at many, if not all, of the events I’ve written about.
It just seemed difficult to work her into the narrative without fully introducing her. And to fully introduce her, I realized I would need a post devoted entirely to her, because God knows she was no footnote.
So, we welcome Pauline “Grossee” Blumenau in earnest to 5,478 Days. Late? Maybe. But now that she’s here, I expect she’ll stay around a while.