Today is Mother's Day... If you haven't called your mother yet - do so! Mine wrote me a great letter yesterday (thanks MOM!!!), and sent along this article on our great-Auntie Babe who is 102 years old! In the spirit of all great women and mothers, here's my great aunt babe:
"I have always been concerned with the matters of the Spirit," Gladys says to us, only minutes into our conversation. Later, she interrupts a story she is telling to observe, "Spirit is something that is hard to realize—it’s hard for a mind—we have so much to learn." Throughout our visit the topic keeps resurfacing, making it clear that "matters of the Spirit" are still something she is very much grappling with.
Gladys is a thin woman with fly-away white hair who looks tall, even sitting in her wheelchair. Her eyes, over a century old, are blind; yet that isn’t immediately obvious because of the way she directs her gaze at people when they speak, or rolls her eyes towards the ceiling in thought. Her logic has a surgical exactness. And when she smiles, it’s like a cloudbreak. Brilliant.
Raised Baptist, Gladys says she believes in God and in God’s Creation. "God created it right," she says. But she goes on to say that others who don’t believe in God still do good in the world, so she can’t condemn them. She also says she doesn’t hate anybody. "Once, I thought I hated Hitler," she tells us. "I wanted to wring his neck." But even he was a normal person once, before he got his dangerous ideas. And it costs a person too much to hate.
When Gladys was a small child, her family lived in rural Texas. The area where they lived had no established church, so they sunk four posts in the ground and covered them with thatch, and held church services beneath. She remembers riding home on her father’s shoulders one night after a service. "The stars were so clear," she tells us. Her father asked her if she wanted to get down and walk, but she said no, because she couldn’t take her eyes off the stars. They had never looked so clear before. "Do you remember," she asks us suddenly, "how things looked when you were a child? Like you were seeing them for the first time." She flashes one of her brilliant smiles. "Everything was magic," she says.
In Texas, Gladys’s family worked on a cotton farm, and she picked cotton side-by-side with the children of Mexican farmworkers. Some of the boys told her the boll weevils tasted like oatmeal, but she swears she never tried one to find out if it was true. She will admit other weaknesses, however; for example, when she and her husband couldn’t scrape together the $200 they needed for a down payment on a farm, she played the Lottery to get it. "Money’s money," she says with a glint of mischief in her eye. She admits she still plays the Lottery, and hopes that one day she’ll win big. She says she wants to make life easier for her two surviving children—both of whom are in their 70s.
When Gladys was 23 she married her husband, a chiropractor. Before they were married he lived a while in Hawaii, and they courted by mail. She says they wrote each other a letter a day. The correspondence filled several trunks; eventually they threw the letters away because they took up so much space. Being married to a chiropractor made Gladys what some in her family call "a health food nut." She also has a suspicion of pills, mentioning briefly a time when she was on medication and unable to think clearly. "People weren’t honest to me," she says. But things are better now. She demonstrates this by reciting poetry for us. "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree…" she begins, and quotes Joyce Kilmer’s poem in its entirety. She closes her eyes and waves her hands in cadence, as if she were conducting a choir to sing along.
In the 1920s Gladys’s husband built her a wooden car that was "shaped like a bullet." When they moved, she drove it all the way from California to Oregon. A woman driving alone—not to mention in a wooden car—was quite a curiosity at the time. Her husband and their children drove in front of her in the family pickup truck, which helped turn back some of the more aggressive onlookers. "Traveling is an education," she says. "It gives you a bigger world to think in." Later, in Portland, Gladys and her sister worked in a restaurant called The Cat and the Fiddle. It was an old Portland favorite that played host to many celebrities. Gladys says the sisters were well known by the restaurant regulars, who like to call them Pretty Wanda and Happy Gladys.
Looking both back and forward, Gladys is optimistic about life. "The world changes," she says, "but lots of things are getting better, especially for women." Men used to "rule the roost," but now women are less willing to let them. She thinks a woman trained in politics is just as good as a man. She’d be interested to see a woman in the White House. She remembers Hawaii’s last queen, who led the island before it became part of the United States. She sings "Farewell to Thee," telling us how it was written for the queen when Hawaii became a state.
"Our memories make us what we are." Gladys tells us later, her unseeing eyes gazing at something too distant to see, and it’s clear her memories have made her rich. But they’re not all she is. We ask her if we can take her picture, "Oh I don’t know honey," she says. "Do I look alright?" We tell her she looks beautiful. "Then I’d be honored," she says. And she smiles.
20 hours ago