Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Family Matriarch Hits the Century Mark

Grandma Austin turns 100 this month.

That's old. To me, Grandma has always been old. She was already in her 60s - I was 17 - when I met her 38 years ago.

In this day and age, turning 100 is not unusual. Still. A hundred years is a long time. Life was a lot different back then.

It cost 2 cents to send a letter. The average annual income was $750. The government spent $.8 billion.

The population of the United States was just more than 92 million. The divorce rate was one in a thousand. Only a third of children attended elementary school and only 5 percent graduated from high school.

Children worked in factories, farms, mills and mines.

The 1910s were a time of great transition. The first women's suffrage parade was held in 1910. The first World War began in 1914. Automobiles began mass-production.

Of course, it was the automobile that would eventually lead Grandma's family to go their separate ways. Even as an adult, Grandma's siblings and in-laws all lived within a few miles of each other. Though her children remained on Long Island, most of her grandchildren have scattered, to upstate New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut.

Living here in the Valley for the past 30 years, my daily life is vaguely connected to family. Of course, my kids and grandkids are here, but it's not very often that a birthday or other holiday is celebrated with extended family.

On this trip "back home," the husband and I stayed with my first cousin on my mother's side, who lives in a neighborhood where I lived as a child. Two other cousins on my father's side live in this same neighborhood. So I passed all their homes on my morning walk. And just driving through town, I saw a cousin walking down the street, the deli that was my grandfather's grocery store and the sidewalk where I learned to ride a bicycle.

This happens to y'all Valley natives all the time, but for me it was a reminder of my connection to a people and place.

Along with the automobile came the telephone, which has helped us all to stay in touch, despite the miles.

America was still mostly rural in 1910, so Grandma grew up on a farm. She raised her children on a farm, too. That farmland is now covered with shopping centers, office buildings and houses. Her husband, a carpenter, helped to build the first Levittown.

And so we gathered to celebrate Grandma's 100th birthday. Two of our children and their families, the four grandchildren, made the trek.

The party was held in a huge gazebo on the property of the nursing home where Grandma lives, on the south shore of Long Island. It was a beautiful day, one of the only comfortable days this summer.

While she's not mobile - she's confined to a wheelchair - Grandma is quite lucid. She remembers everything and has an opinion on everything, too. She has a great appetite and enjoys a good meal.

Some of her nursing home friends also came to the party. They all spoke of Grandma as a positive, encouraging presence there. In spite of her age, Grandma still has a bit of womanly vanity. She's quick to point out that there are several women at the home who are older than her.

It was fun to see my grandchildren with her, their great-great-grandmother. Scarlett, 4, had never seen such an old person. She stood and stared at Grandma, as if she was memorizing every line and mole on her face. Several times she picked up Grandma's hand and stroked it, examining it. What a contrast between their skins.

Of course, we took pictures. Of her three children, only one is still alive. Two grandchildren have died in recent years. This is the difficult part of living to 100, outliving children and grandchildren.

The last time Grandma visited here, at age 93, she told me she was ready to die. However, she knew she still had more years to live. As a child in a Catholic elementary school, a nun told her she'd live past 100. She has always known this to be true.

Then, the husband and I took her for a ride on Skyline Drive, where she saw a bear in the wild for the first time. She insisted that we pull the car over so she could get a better look.

"Well, what do you know?" she said. "An old lady can see something new!"