It has become a four-generation tradition to head south of the cities and take in a small-town celebration of fall. Our route winds between soaring bluffs and a shimmering lake. It feels like a narrow passageway, a tunnel back in time.
We perused antique dolls at a whimsical toy store in Wabasha, Minnesota. Grandma recognized a Shirley Temple doll on display; she’d had the same one.
Then we climbed aboard the hand-carved carousel, Grandma in a gilded chariot pulled by an ostrich, the baby on her lap. It seemed a fitting placement for our freckled matriarch, who turns 90 this month: a few musical loops for the woman who has circled the sun 90 times, all while remaining in close orbit with the Son.
On the drive home, we gazed at blazing maples and listened to “How Great Thou Art” — a song played at Grandpa Jim’s funeral, she told me.
In the back of the van, a great-grandchild snapped her reverie, and stories of toddler antics ensued. Again she seamlessly spanned the decades, recalling her days with young children. She laughed about the time her son Michael got stuck in a muddy field at stern Farmer Sperl’s. A neighbor boy breathlessly alerted her, advising: “You might need boots.”
The lake danced behind us, and I circled back to her milestone birthday.
“I feel pretty much the same as 70,” she said.
Grandma stimulates her mind and soul: daily Mass and crosswords and journaling, weekly adoration, frequent phone calls and chocolates. She credits “God’s grace and the luck of the Irish, which includes my genes.”
She does not look 90. She is spry, plucking out songs at the piano, scooping up great-grandbabies, serving guests.
She is beloved by everyone she encounters — a universal Grandma, a stand-in with a ready hug and listening ear, a candy dish and a crackling fireplace.
She makes each visitor feel understood and embraced. That is her superpower: She remembers. She is 90 and also 50 and 20 and 5. She recalls each stage — not only where she was and what she did, but how she felt.
She is still a redheaded girl living in St. Paul with her grandparents, tormented by the neighbor boy Donny Stulhman, determined to prove she is taller than he (though she is not).
She is still a teenager, dreaming of motherhood and sobered by news of World War II, listening to H.V. Kaltenborn on the radio with her grandpa.
She is still a kindergarten teacher, overwhelmed and inspired to teach 110 students.
She is still a newlywed, deeply in love, merging two lives.
She is still a stay-at-home mom, humbled by the task of raising children.
She is still a Girl Scout leader, teaching the third graders in Troop 551 a melody they will sing when they are new moms soothing colicky babies.
She is still a widower at 45, given to fits of uncontrollable crying, triggered by daily reminders like shoes in a closet, but also propped up by enormous kindness. (“I never knew there was such compassion,” she said. “I’ll never be the same.”)
She is still a program coordinator at a social service agency called Neighbors, determined to serve the needy in her midst.
She is still a grandma, floored by the joy of her baby’s baby.
She is still a great-grandma, elevated to “another whole level, floating above Never-Never Land, fully aware of each blessing but totally free of responsibility.”
She has kept all these things in her heart, and she can access any one at any time. At 90, she is ageless: tender and tough, young and wise, more alive than ever.
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