Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How they lived their 100-plus years

Nothing is sadder than an obit for a centenarian, which says little more than "This person lived a really long time."

I recently wrote an obit that ran in The Plain Dealer on Aug. 16, 2006, for Florence Homan, who had been the oldest person in Ohio. Age 112. A lot of years, and yet there was little more for me to say about her.

She had outlived her husband. She had no children. The "next of kin," who handled her funeral arrangements, was a stepsomething-in-law of a relative of her husband's a few times removed.

The only story about her that I could find in our archives was written a few months earlier when the previous oldest-person-in-Ohio died. It was more about centenarians in general than it was about Florence in particular.

I put together a short obit that said she:
(1)was born Florence Wilker on Nov. 18, 1893, in Middleburg Township, more than 30 years before the area was incorporated as the village of Middleburg Heights;
(2)grew up on a farm;
(3)had an 8th-grade education;
(4)worked for Higbee's department store as a seamstress for more than 50 years;
(5)married a railroad worker, who was 10 years her junior, in 1941;
(6)lived most of her life in Cleveland in a house that was torn down to make way for the construction of an interstate highway;
(7)moved to the suburbs;
(8)was widowed in 1988;
(9)and moved into a nursing home at age 105.

That's actually a lot more than I could dig up about other centenarians, who have died on my watch. I have to believe there was much more to tell about Florence. I just couldn't find people or documentation that could help me get it together on deadline.

Bryan Marquard's obit for artist Polly Thayer Starr, which ran in the Sept. 3, 2006, edition of the Boston Globe shows a centenarian, who lived a fascinating 101 years.

Polly had children and friends with sundry details about her New England ancestry, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and a host of Episcopalian ministers, her art training and career, marriage and motherhood.

And the Smithsonian Institution had interviewed her 11 years before her death.

Bryan was able to gather a considerable amount of information about this centenarian. And he selected terrific facts and quotes that made this a delightful obit to read.

He included details about her work - portraits that range from literal to ethereal; to landscapes illuminating the spirit of a milieu; to a series of paintings capturing the life span of a thistle - that illustrate the depth of her art.

And this revealing quote from Polly's Smithsonian interview: "I was pretty gun-shy of marriage when it would mean giving up painting. . . . It took a long time to make up my mind."

Here are more gems:

"You never achieve what you want," she told a friend late in life, "but you're always getting nearer to the essence . . . and that's a search that is all important."

From one of her daughters: "She could pat bumblebees. While he was on the flower, she would take her finger and stroke his fur and his wings would buzz like mad, and he wouldn't fly away until she stopped. It always seemed to me the equivalent of a cat's purr."

She became a Quaker and ventured away from home, seeking new inspiration. She attended wrestling matches and was invited into an operating room to watch surgery, telling a friend that "to see the living organs pushing up uncovered out of a woman's body . . . I forgot everything in the wonder of it."

Then, in her 70s, she developed glaucoma and macular degeneration. Before completely losing her sight, her final works in her late 80s were drawings of a thistle and a diaphanous self-portrait that seemed to place her both in this world and the next.

Bryan ended the story with this: The pull of creativity, she told the Smithsonian, never ceases. "It's the Hound of Heaven," she said with a chuckle. "It's always after you."

Please share your favorite centenarian-obit stories and tips on how to gather info about the dearly departed, whose family and friends are long departed.


Amy said...

I've written several life stories for people over 100 years old.
I first scan for age, and usually shun people over 100 because it's very difficult to get information. Their spouses and children are often dead, and the survivors are grandchildren and/or nieces and nephews and/or nursing home staff who generally aren't much use.

Having said that ... one should never say never.
One of my favorite life stories was about a 106-year-old man, Ken Batchelder, who wrote his autobiography in his 80s, then had to update it and write Part II at age 94 after he visited Russia and China and the North Pole on a nuclear-powered icebreaker...

Kay Powell said...

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we use our archives, as Alana did, and can turn to researchers at Georgia State University for supercentenarians (older than 110) and the University of Georgia for research on Georgians 100 and older. We have many people dying past 100 and don't write on every one.

The older they are, the more likely we'll do a story. Within one month, I wrote on three women who died at 115 and a month later, we did another obit on a woman who died at 111.

You can usually find someone, even if it's a caregiver or a researcher, who can put a spark into the life story.

Kay Powell

Anonymous said...

My gran died at 93, and had (as she said) outlived everyone she knew. She was immensely important to me growing up and I spent a lot of time with her and knew a lot of her stories, so grandchildren can know a lot. YOu can often say a bit about the very old by putting them in context. My gran was born in the colony of Victoria, before Australia became a federation. He mother was born when the American Civil War was still on, and there were stories that my gran had (when a child) met a man who had survived the battle of Waterloo and was a pensioner from the British Army (her mother had definitely met the Waterloo survivor). She lived through the invention of the phone,saw automobiles go from being something unusual - that she & her brother would run to the road to see- to houses having two car garages. She lived through both World wars, the Depression the influenza epidemic, dipheria and polio epidemics and saw the development of mass vacinations and antibiotics. she listened to radio and watched the moonlanding on television. She worked before she married and onlu paid State income tax (they iposed federal income tax as a temporary measure during the second world war). She married a war hero and said that " I was a good spinster ruined".She came from a family of conversationalists - so I learnt to talk about things, and to be interested in the world. She was a keen gardener (but not as keen as her mother). The best things about her though were that she always had her own view on things and she had a sense of humour. She followed the football until her dying day. She was at peace and ready to die for at least the last twenty years of her life and a dedicated athiest, who was never tempted to recant. she brought a lot of history to life for me, because for her it was her life. And she would have said that she had done nothing and had lived an uneventful life. Anyway, great blog - it made me think about my gran, and I haven't done that for at least a couple of weeks! She died in 1991.

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks for sharing your grandmother's story with us, Linda.

I understand where you're coming from, but for the most part some of what you say is not practical for a newspaper obituary.

I used to write obits for centenarians that included things like who was president of the United States and what was the news of the day when that person was born.

That was when I was an obit-writing novice and more concerned with pounding out an obit on deadline and less concerned about writing a once-in-a-lifetime story about the person's life.

The dead people I write about, who are 80 and older, lived through just about all of those things your grandmother lived through. These are things that are not worth listing in an obit.

Certainly people who are now 100 or older have lived through everything you listed.

It's like saying "I lived through Sept. 11, 2001." Unless I was a survivor of the terrorist attacks, I'm just one of the crowd.

I get a lot of obit suggestions from people who are preoccupied with the notion that their dad or granddad was a member of what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." All that says is that this person was old enough to have lived through that part of history.

Unless we can say exactly what it was that the deceased did during the Depression or World War II, it's not worth mentioning.

If I were writing your gran's obit, I wouldn't be content to say "she worked before she married." I'd want to know what kind of job she had.

That's all I'll say at this point. This comment is getting too long.

Amy said...

I would add to what Alana has said that I have, when time was short or information was scant, fallen back on the cliched "he lived through X, Y and Z (world-changing events)." But that's only as a last resort, and never the preferred way of handling a life story. It's much more interesting to get details about the person him/herself.

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