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Advice from a 100-year-old woman

My dad’s sister Arlene recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

There aren’t many who reach this milestone, so I dropped in on Arlene the other day to see if I could glean some of the secrets to leading a long and happy life. Arlene lives by herself in a small, sunlit apartment that’s bedecked with family photos and cherished mementos.

Arlene (Nelson) Granum was the first of seven children born to Erwin and Elida Nelson.

“I don’t know why I’ve lived so long,” Arlene says. “I don’t go to the doctor much, but I had to give up the car four years ago."

I asked Arlene about her childhood. 

“We lived in Minneota, Minnesota for a while when I was a kid,” she says.

This I knew. 

The double whammy of the Great Depression and the dirty thirties caused many to become economically displaced, including Grandpa and Grandma Nelson and their young family. Minnesota is also home to our Johnson kin. 

“I really liked it in Minnesota,” Arlene says. “I had lots of friends, and a good public school was only a mile away from where we lived. When it got cold out, we would walk through a big general store to get warmed up on our way to school.”

I asked Arlene how she met her husband, Sylvan.

“His sister and I went to confirmation class together,” she replied. “Meeting him just sort of happened.”

Arlene and Sylvan had five children. In addition to being a full-time homemaker, Arlene helped Sylvan run his construction business. But that wasn’t all.

“When the Granum sisters opened a restaurant in Volga, I started to bake pies for them,” Arlene says. “It got so popular that businessmen would begin to line up at their restaurant at 9:30 each morning because that’s when I would deliver my pies.”

I asked Arlene if there is a trick to making a good pie crust. 

“There’s no big secret,” she adds. “Just use good butter.”

Fittingly, on the wall behind Arlene is a newspaper clipping about Arlene and her legendary lefse. 

Lefse is the Norwegian version of a tortilla and can be tricky to make. Done well, lefse is delicious; done poorly, it’s only suitable for shoe repair. I know from experience that Arlene’s lefse is always delicious.

I reminded Arlene that my wife and I live on Erwin and Elida’s farm, where Arlene spent some of her formative years. 

“Do you still use the old barn?” she asked. 

I replied that we do. I showed her an iPhone photo of our barn with some of our Jersey steers standing nearby. 

“Ma would sit with us kids on that lawn at night – there was no electricity back then – and point out the Milky Way and the constellations,” Arlene murmured. 

“Ma knew a lot of things about Mother Nature. It was fun when she helped us catch fireflies on summer evenings. Sometimes we would see the Northern Lights flicker and wave, but nobody knew what caused them.”

By the time I came along, Elida was small and frail and had begun her long, slow descent into the fog of Alzheimer's disease. It was difficult for me to reconcile my mental picture of Grandma with the sturdy young mother that Arlene so fondly recalls. 

I showed Arlene a photo of the tiger lilies that bloom every summer near our house. I reckoned that Elida planted them before I was born.

“Oh, say!” exclaimed Arlene, sounding exactly like Grandma. 

I asked Arlene about some of her memories of Grandpa Nelson. 

“Pa would drop us kids off at the church for the Christmas program,” she says. “Then he would go visit his ma, who lived nearby. We didn’t mind because the church would give us Cracker Jack and Grandma always sent home a bunch of treats with Pa.”

I asked Arlene about her grandmother, Betsy. Betsy Johnson married Henry Nelson in 1887. They then moved from Minnesota and homesteaded in eastern Dakota territory.

“Grandma was hard of hearing,” Arlene says. “But she was very kind and a wonderful cook.”

It was deeply gratifying to again touch the hand of someone who had touched the hands of my pioneer ancestors. It was a tangible connection to my past and to the people whom I only know through faded black-and-white photographs. 

Other matters were demanding my attention, so I arose to bid Arlene adieu. When I took her hand in mine, she pulled me in for a hug.

“I love you, dear,” she murmured.  “I love you too,” I replied, suddenly and unexpectedly choked up.

Maybe that’s the secret to a long and happy life: good butter and plenty of “I love yous.”

Jerry Nelson

About the Author: Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear County Agent Guy,” which became a book of the same name. The book is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.

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