Years ago, when we were having a bad day, Grandma would say, “Well, the first 100 years are the worst.” And then she’d laugh to assure us that better times were coming.
When I planned this series, I wanted to celebrate a woman who had actually lived those 100 years. Even though the 2010 census tells us that over 50,000 people in this country are over 100, and of those 82.8% are women, I didn’t know any of them. So when it was announced at the Arizona P.E.O. convention that Iva was 100 years old, I knew she was the centenarian I’d hoped to meet.
The truth is, I was a bit starstruck as I interviewed Iva. When I made the appointment, she said she remembered meeting me and would love to talk but couldn’t meet until that afternoon. Not that she couldn’t get out of bed before then, but because she was attending a meeting. For fun, I invited Jan Stevens, another P.E.O. sister to join us.
Iva told us that she was born in 1916 in Wisconsin, married, then raised her family in southeast Iowa before moving to Phoenix. Our ninety minute conversation was filled with memories of her life as a nurse, model, dairy princess, artist, Republican leader, church and community volunteer, mom and wife.
When I explained that she could speak freely because I wouldn’t publish everything she said, she was was quick to tell me: “I don’t worry. One of my words is as good as another. I don’t censor myself.”
So here’s how Iva answered the four questions:
What are the most important things you’ve learned?
“Oh…I think I know everything. Whatever you want to know. I’ve had a lot of experiences. I’m well educated. I was in the nursing field, and I was also appointed to lead. No matter wherever I stuck my head in, they appointed me to do something.
“Well, I’ve always been conscious of nutrition. All my life. I grew up on a farm and my mother was conscious of good food. And it wasn’t one of these where you run to a grocery story, because we couldn’t. There was no way to get there. But she was a great baker. We had a big garden and an orchard. And, of course, being on the farm we had milk and chickens and eggs. All our food was there and she knew what to put together to feed a family. And so I have five brothers and sisters and I remember her always able to set a table with very good nourishing food.
“So when I went to college I realized I just respected the human body. I just thought, Why destroy it with a lot of artificial attachment of this or that, or wrong diet or drinking or anything like that. Here’s a beautiful structure, why not respect it?
“You’ll be happy as long as you keep busy. As long as you keep your nose stuck in. Not where it doesn’t belong, but keep interested and don’t say, ‘I appreciate being invited, but you know I’m 50 years old.’ I would never say that.
“I keep thinking, Am I worthy? Do I deserve it? But I’d go in, supply what I had to give for as long as I could or as long as I lived in that area. So I always kept my nose in activities. I can always quit; I can always say I’m having a bad time or something, but I would always go ahead. I’d think, Yes, I think I can do that.
“So I would always stick my nose in, regardless. I have always thought, If they are interested and came to talk to me, I figured am worth going into this organization and being introduced; why not respond? I just find it’s by Divine guidance that I kind of knew that I was being protected. And I’m not ashamed of talking about it at all.
“Well, you have to keep active, because if you’re not really active, you get lonely. And that can lead to remorse and memories and you go down hill. You have to keep above it. You just have to keep hanging on.”
What thoughts go through your head today? Are you doing anything special to mark this new time in your life?
“Family is important, it really is. And they all keep in touch with me with cards and greetings and telephone calls. I had a big celebration here on my 99th birthday. No one ever thought about 100, my God! Who was going to wait that long? So then on my 99th birthday we had a big gathering. Cousins and brothers and sisters who were still living brought all their children and grandchildren. We had a huge gathering in the rec area on the patio, where the waterfalls are downstairs.
“And there’s a rack for my greeting card [She points to various places in the room]. That’s my family in back of you. The eldest son, was just ready to go to the university, so we had a family group picture.
“Right now I’m on all kinds of committees and do all kinds of stuff in this place. I go to these luncheons here and we pick the food apart and say, ‘This was good today, but yesterday it was terrible. No more raw steak, no more of that. We’d rather have so and so.’ And they take notes, take our suggestions, and then we’re dismissed. They have a nutritionist paid for this whole area. It’s really well organized. And this place is examined and supervised from the state level. They can’t just throw anything out for you.
“We have exercises and one of the exercises we sit in a chair and another we ride a bicycle and at the same time we’re using our arms. We’re using our whole body for about twenty minutes. They take care of every part of your body. If you want to get up and get out of bed you can be busy. You can be busy all the time. There’s something offered.
“And we have a very good library. You can always see a movie in the afternoon if you want to do that and we have our own post office. See I have this reading machine right in back of me. I do my own letter writing and I just take it to the post office. That’s my address book behind you. All my families’ addresses are in there. She stamps it. Of course, I pay my own postage. Other than that she sees that it gets mailed. All I have to do is get the letter written.”
What plans or goals do you have for the next few years?
“I don’t know. That’s too far away. I just want to maintain my health. To continue my physical and mental strength. It’s my hope that I don’t end up with consumption.
“I don’t have the greatest eyesight, but I have a session coming up where I’ll have special glasses made. Now I see well, but I can tell that I’m losing some of the strength of my eyesight. I don’t want to do that, I want to continue holding it. I feel well, I really have nothing wrong with me. Well, this morning I have an ingrown toenail and that’s why I have these old bedroom slippers on today.
“I have a son who’s an attorney and he lives here in Phoenix and he is not too far from me. He was here with me this morning. We have conferences and he helps me with my voting ballot, so I can be sure and see who I’m voting for and we sit and talk about everything. He’s retired and he comes in and says, ‘What kind of mail have you had?’ And that’s a support. A real support.
“My daughter, lives in a little suburb near here and she watches my clothing and this and that and says, ‘They’re having a tea. Do you want to go?’ And sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. So it’s kind of an even balance with the two of them being so close.”
What do you worry about?
“Well I am really not a worrier. I do not want to sound like a fanatic, but I do have faith and Divine guidance. And I’ve had it since I was a child. And my family was the same way. All my life to my dying day, I always felt kind of a Divine nudge; that I knew that somebody was always protecting me—always helping me.
“Even here. I live alone in this room. And I don’t talk about my religion, but I just get a hunch or a nudge, ‘Don’t get too involved in that. That’s Mrs. So-and-so and she’s a gossip and she’s going to cause you trouble.…’ I even talk out loud, like ‘Lord, I don’t know. I really don’t like what’s coming up today. What am I going to do about this?’ You know. And I kind of mumble to myself as if somebody is in the room. Pretty soon, it works out. It works out and on I go. I don’t worry. I really don’t worry about things.”
As I listen to Iva speak, I realize she’s the original Lean In woman. Her charming phrase,“stick my nose in,” speaks volumes about her engagement with life—even now. Living is an art and Iva advocates for taking responsibility for keeping her mind, body, and spirit active, with no excuses.
I’ll never forget the sincere expression on her face and the tone of her voice as she spoke of the importance of looking ahead rather than back. It keeps her from dwelling in what-used-to-be-my-life and shields her from loneliness. A lesson for all of us.
Several times Iva referred to her Divine guidance and protection as if God was someone in the room with her—a partner. No matter what our age, we share the experience of people showing up in our lives, then at some point, through a move, or a falling out, or death, they all leave. It’s inspiring to see someone transform her religion into a spiritual anchor, an eternal friend, and a protector from the storms of life. Too many of us go through religious or spiritual motions without developing a resilient and personal relationship with the Divine.
I’m still starstruck. I’m also filled with admiration for Iva’s willingness to share her journey with us. Iva, you’re not one in 50,000, you’re one in a million. And Grandma is right. Your best days are ahead of you!
May you be blessed with a long and healthy life,
PS. Here’s the link to the stories of the other women in our series:
10-Bailey: “I used to play on an all boys soccer team and I was the only girl. I had to play a little more physical than how I play on the girls’ team now but I’m really glad I did it. I think it made me a better player.”
20-Kat: “I am trying to do things that make me happy and I’m trying to stay off of Netflix. No good story started out with, ‘This one time, I was watching Netflix and….’”
30-Niamh: “I’m scared and excited to find out what this next decade has in store for me, but I’m strapped in and ready to take the next ride.” http://whalenvoices.com/2016/07/15/celebrate-turning-30-with-niamh/
40-Tinisha: “My greatest successes are those that I did not think that I could achieve. There is something extra rewarding in turning your ‘I cant’s’ into ‘I cans.’”
50-Dawn: “Life is about celebrating the little things, special moments, important people, and making memories.” http://whalenvoices.com/2016/07/29/celebrate-turning-50-with-dawn/)
60-Linda “Taking a holistic approach to life has made this transition into a new decade much easier. It has been a time of reflection. It has been a journey of self-actualization.” http://whalenvoices.com/2016/08/04/celebrate-turning-60-with-linda/)
70-Lee: “I have continued to be surprised and grateful that the core of my being has proven resilient; able to withstand adversity, sadness, grief, guilt, failure and setbacks.”
80-Marilyn: “I will never think ‘old,’ continue experimenting in life, and have my many memories to make me smile.”
90-Linda: “It’s your ideas and outlook on life that keep you young. Be positive to stay positive and never change this positive outlook.”http://whalenvoices.com/2016/08/26/celebrate-turning-90-with-linda/)