100 Year Assignment

In elementary school, our math teacher said: Show us how you would spend one million dollars. I promptly cut out photos of Shetland ponies, a trapeze, and a dance studio. 

But suppose the teacher had said: Show us how you would spend one hundred years. At age eight, I probably would have had an answer. Now, at twenty-eight, I'm not so sure. 

My Great Aunt Ida never had a million dollars. But she's one of the few who's earned one-hundred years. And she's spent it wisely--not carefully--she's taught me there's a difference. 

We're celebrating her 100th birthday this weekend. She'll be walking into the restaurant--no help-- and I'll be hobbling along behind her with my crutches. She's offered to let me borrow her walker. She's a regular jokester. 

Over the past few weeks I've been collecting photos for the party. They're clues as to how she's spent her hundred years. There's one of young Ida showing off a dress with big pockets--used to smuggle her father's liquor when they crossed the Canadian border. Ida living in a railway house when she was mining for gold in Northern California. Ida in India the time her girlfriend fell in the Ganges. There's the van she and her husband Uncle Joe sold the house for and drove all over Europe. And then, there's Ida sitting on an elephant waving like the queen.

Ida with my Grandfather

When I told her I was planning the party, she said:

"Who are you inviting? Everyone is dead."

And then, she gave a little laugh like she always does when she says something wicked. I wish I could tell her she's wrong. But the 40+ party guests mainly consist of "the children": the children of Ida's siblings, the children of her friends, the children's children, and the children's children's children. Some of the children are nearly seventy. She's babysat for all of them.

Ida still lives independently. She drinks one warm coke a day to keep the doctor away. And she has a secret stash of cigarettes in her midcentury sideboard. She quit decades ago. She says she saves them for company. Once, I went to her apartment and she had the KAMA SUTRA as a book on tape alongside THE KORAN. She never talks about her work life. She always talks of family, her husband, and the friends she made while traveling and volunteering. "I'm so lucky," she says. "Oooooh yes."  And when she tastes ice cream, you can see every ounce of her relish the taste.

Ida's been a lot of help to me during my recovery. We chat over the phone. We commiserate about not being able to drive. She demands I get better and have a baby already. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to hold a Knaus baby," she says.

The night before my surgery, I rang her up. "Ida, I'm going on the cutting board tomorrow so they can remove that damn tumor."

"Are they taking out a hunk of your thigh bone? Big enough to make a good soup?" 

"Yep, and they're filling my leg with cement."

"Well, don't go swimming. You might sink."

She laughed at her own joke for a minute and then added: "Well, you'll be okay. I'll be thinking of you."

And this is when our voices always crack...

"I love you."

"I love you too, honey."  

But when we ended our call today, she added something new:

"Do you know anyone who's ever been 100?"

"Nope, Ida."

"Me neither. Well, now you do."