Uncle Neal and Aunt Mary

My great uncle Neal and my great aunt Mary are two of my absolute favorite people on the planet.  Neal will be 98 on July 9 and Mary turned 92 last Christmas Eve.  They celebrated their 70th anniversary on June 21st.  Their secret to a long-lasting relationship according to her: two tubes of toothpaste, so one can squeeze from the top and one from the bottom without annoying the other.  Neal is an ornery rascal, the kind of guy who gives waitresses trouble, but they love it.  And Mary is steady and sweet.  He’ll tease her, and she’ll dish it back with a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her lips.  Mary had her knee replaced back in the early spring.  She’s recovered beautifully and was talking for awhile about when she’d get the other knee replaced, but now she’s thinking she might not put Neal through that again.  He was doing the laundry for the first time.  Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?  They bought 2 new cars back in 2007, so they plan on being around awhile.  My uncle has always said he’d live to be 104, and he’s stubborn enough that he’ll probably make it.  Oh, and they Skype with their daughter back in the midwest.  And they still hold hands.  It’s mostly for stability when they walk, but it’s still ridiculously cute.  I really wish that everyone I know could meet them, but they wouldn’t like all the attention.

The happy couple 70 years ago on their wedding day.

Fifty years, shmifty years--try 70!

Now Uncle Neal and my grandma are brother and sister and they grew up on a farm in rural Denver, Illinois during the Great Depression.  Neither of them really talk much about those years because they were so difficult.  Neal was the only son in a family of daughters, so he had to work arduously and incessantly throughout his childhood.  I think he and I got along so well when I was a kid because he just acted like a big kid, and he never got to act like a kid when he was a kid.

But as the only son, he did get to go to college, so after working the farm for a few years after high school, he went to the University of Illinois (go Big Ten) to study agriculture.  It’s there that he met Mary.  She had grown up in Southern Illinois as the daughter of the town doctor.  She recalls her mom and dad tearing up the townspeople’s doctor’s bills because no one could afford to pay them.  Other times, they were paid in chickens and eggs and the like.  The story goes that when he proposed he asked if she wanted to ride in double harness with him.  Aunt Mary taught home economics for a couple years while Neal finished up school, and then when they got married, Neal started working for Campbell’s Soup.  He traveled the country buying vegetables from farmers that would be the carrots and corn and green beans in the soups.

When I lived in the midwest, I wouldn’t see them very often, but now that I live in Los Angeles, I see them every couple of months.  Right after I was born, they moved to Sun City West, Arizona, which is a community developed by Del Webb.  Basically, you have to be 55 or older to own property, so everyone here is older.  I’ve enjoyed coming here ever since I was little because if you’re younger than 40, you get a lot of attention and appreciation.  What’s great about this community is the number of activities they have for retired folks.  My aunt has become very involved in china painting and jewelry-making and needlecraft.  My uncle has served on the volunteer posse (who assist the police department) for over 30 years.  The meeting room in the posse building is named after him and he was just named the 2011 Citizen of the Year for Sun City West by the Chamber of Commerce.  And you should see how everyone reacts to them around town.  They end up teasing back and forth with Neal and are so endeared toward Mary.

Some of Mary's China painting

I try to get stories out of the two of them every time I visit.  This time, we were at a meal out somewhere, and we’d been talking about when they were first married.  Mary leans in (they do this adorable thing when they’re sitting next to each other where they lean their shoulders into each other and have a little side conversation), and all she says is, “Do you remember that hotel?”  And they both go off on this whole story.  They had just gotten married and Mary would travel with Neal on some of his vegetable-buying expeditions.  It was tomato season, so they were in southern Illinois for a few weeks, and the hotel they stayed only had rope ladders in the rooms in case of a fire, which terrified Mary, but thankfully they didn’t have to use them.  Mary even ended up working for the tomato bureau or some such organization.  Neal proceeded to tell a story of a very religious woman at the bureau and a feisty farmer who, knowing her leanings, would make sure to swear a blue streak every time he was around her, but for whatever reason, she really liked the guy.

And there were the two brother-farmers in North Dakota who took over the farm from their father and built a warehouse to store their onion crop.  But there was a defect in the warehouse and the onions were rotten, so they had to replace the crop somehow.  For every part of the country, Neal has a vegetable and a farmer and a story from that region.  Neal worked and traveled a LOT.  And  at first Mary would travel with him, but once their daughter Barbara was born, Mary stayed home and took care of her.  It wasn’t until this year that I realized that Mary was practically a single mother for a good bunch of the time.  But the thing is, she never even questioned it.  It’s not that she felt oppressed or wasn’t liberated.  In that day and age, you just did it.  You were committed.  You worked it out.  End of story.  During this visit, I asked Uncle Neal if he got along with his father.  He responded, “Well, I’ve never even thought about it.”

I learn so much from them every time I visit and wonder if there aren’t a few things that their generation may have gotten right.  Sometimes when I’m with them, I think my generation’s questioning and deconstructing of everything may have gotten us a certain level of self-realization, yes, but also lot of therapy bills and ungrateful discontent.  Life happens and you deal with it and move on.  Sometimes that sounds like rest and relief to my overcomplicating, overthinking tendencies.

But I did have a piece of self-awareness to offer my Aunt Mary.  She is one of the best conversationalists I know, and I told her so at dinner last night.  She asks wonderful questions that require thoughtful answers of more than just a few words.  And she’s really open to talking about anything.  Watching the news about New York last night, I asked her what she thought about gay marriage, and we had a great conversation about it.  Nothing is off limits.  And, people, she’s 92!  At the same time, she has that way of being corrective and diplomatic at the same time that “ladies” possess (and I never inherited).  I was still wearing my pajamas on Sunday morning (a t-shirt and shorts) and she looks at me and says, “You know, Ann, people don’t really wear shorts to church.”  But her tone wasn’t guilt-trippy or commanding.  She was just stating a fact.  I reassured her that I was changing.  I could use a little of that finesse.

This morning as I leave town, Neal and Mary are heading to a funeral of a member of their church.  My aunt and uncle are the only living charter (founding) members of their congregation.  They spend a lot of time going to funerals, between church and the posse and all their friends. If you live long enough, you outlast a lot of people.  So they are grateful for the time and abilities that they have.  They accept that some day their time will come, too.  But when it does, they will have left a beautiful legacy of love and service and a whole lot of great stories.

I found this image of lots of little coffee cups so endearing. 70 years of breakfast conversation.

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2 Responses

  1. I loved this post. I totally agree with you that our generation has a lot to learn about sacrifice, perspective, and just plain living from generations past. We think that we’re entitled to everything vs. the previous generation who had to work their tails off.

  2. Annie – This was GREAT! I can identify with what you wrote so very much. Been there – done that . . .

    Let me know when you read this. I forwarded the blog link to Ilene who has been following as well. She posted a note but I don’t know if it went through so let her know. Thanks.

    Love, Dad

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