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Reeder: A witness to the amazing changes of the 20th century

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:22AM



I went to a special birthday party over the weekend. My grandmother, Eva Reeder, turned 103.

It was an interesting party. After all, I’ve never met, yet alone known, a 103-year-old before.

Too often, people my grandmother’s age are not as mentally sharp as they once were, even though their bodies have managed to hang on. Not so with my grandmother.

She loves to recite poetry, reads constantly and hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. (She didn’t like the New Deal but thought it was high time to get rid of Prohibition.)

She is also the oldest resident at the Knox County Nursing Home. Whenever I visit her, I’m struck by the fact that most of her fellow residents are a generation younger. Before she was admitted to the home, I never considered nursing homes to be multi-generational spots. Now I know.

Grandma Eva was born into a nation much different from today’s America: The American flag had 46 stars — New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska hadn’t been admitted to the Union yet. Like 95 percent of the babies born in 1910, she was delivered at home. The average life expectancy in the United States was 47. There were only 8,000 cars in the United States and only 144 miles of paved roads. Only 14 percent of the homes in the United States had a bathtub.

That final point was brought home for me when I helped my grandmother clean out her basement a few years ago and came across a small, galvanized wash tub. Grandma explained that she heated the tub filled with water atop a wood stove to bathe my newborn father. Dad turns 82 this year.

She learned to cook on a wood stove and was still cooking on one well into middle age.

Back in the 1970s, when my older brother bought a bright red Camaro, she shared with me how teenage boys when she was growing up would pick up their dates in a carriage with a matching team of horses. (Apparently, that was the essence of cool in the early 1900s.)

So what is the secret to living to be 103? Grandma had a long-loving marriage, 74 years, to my Grandpa Ralph who died at 99 in 2004. She exercised regularly, walking at least a mile daily with Grandpa. They held each other’s hands for each step.

Fruits and vegetables were a part of every meal. Grandma never smoked or drank.

When one passes 100, memories become more important. Grandma spends far more time today remembering and almost no time planning.

She still calls Memorial Day, Decoration Day because as a child that was the day one decorated the graves of the Union war dead. She was born only 45 years after the Civil War. And veterans of that conflict were her neighbors.

She remembers doughboys coming home from World War I with their campaign hats and khaki uniforms. Her neighbors burned the Kaiser in effigy.

Twenty-four years later, she learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while milking a cow. My then-10-year-old father raced into the barn to tell her the news after hearing it on the radio.

Grandma Eva was in her 30s before she lived in a house that had either electricity or indoor plumbing. And well into her adulthood, she was still working fields with horses. Its mind-boggling to think that she knew folks who had voted for fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln.

But by far the most important historical event to shape her life was the Great Depression. For 48 years, she has been telling me that another Great Depression is coming. And her life of frugality has been a testimony to her concern over future financial calamity.

But Grandma’s riches aren’t stored in a bank or vulnerable to a financial downturn.

Her riches are stored in her heart, in her love for God, her family and her country. Happy birthday, Grandma.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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