Daughter Celebrates Unstoppable 92-Year-Old Mom’s Verve for Life
When my mother arrived in this world, her parents intended to name her Shirley Arlene King. Shirley’s big sister made an appeal to switch the name to Arlene Shirley and presented her case with a valid explanation: “Because then her initials will spell ‘A.S. King’ but we can still call her Shirley!” A win-win deal! Shirley’s mother switched the order of the names. As Shirley grew up, that name order became increasingly appropriate. Whenever a situation needed a solution, she would ask herself, “There has to be a way to do this, but how?” Mom displayed an unnerving resolve despite being born with a disability that left her with just one hand.
All five of her children have learned to let the now-92-year-old Mom show us how to answer that question as she continues to live young in the process. Mom believes old age sneaks in when she stops asking that question. The following story illustrates how her attitude has influenced the next generation: her 34 grandchildren and her 70 great-grandchildren.
It happened one day while I was baking cookies with my grandchildren, and 9-year-old Zach reminded me that his brother was going to have a birthday soon, and he would be 6 years old!
“Wow!” I marveled, “that makes him old!”
Fourteen-year-old Dayci said, “Then that makes me ancient!”
To which I replied, “Hmmm. Then what does that make me?”
Dayci’s response: “Extinct?”
Zach’s response: “Ageless!” Zach’s answer is a perfect description of their 92-year-old great-grandmother, who is showing us all how to live agelessly.
As a kid, she had to herd the cows from the far end of the pasture to the barn for the evening milking. She decided walking one way through the grass and weeds was enough. Why walk back when she could ride a cow? Problem solved. Years later at age 92, she needed to go to her son’s home several states away, a much longer trip than the length of a pasture! She moved from cow power to horsepower and drove the 21.5 hours to his house (with rests, of course). Problem solved.
As a teen, she figured out how to paint the peak of her house without a ladder. She shimmied onto the roof with her brush and a can of paint and leaned over the edge of the roof upside down to paint the peak. Problem solved. Years later, when she needed to stain the outside of the deck railings that were high off the ground, she used the same technique. Except this time, she was 82.
When she was a young married mother of three, she and her husband moved to another state. The walls of her new residence bothered her because they had no decorations. Why not try painting pictures herself? That decision must have awakened a talent somewhere inside her that had been lying dormant. At least, that’s all we can figure out. She graced her walls with beautiful paintings, and she ended up giving art lessons to others as well. Her artistic decision also had a surprising effect on her children. They, too, began to discover and develop a creative streak hidden inside each of them. Drawing. Gardening. Photography. Decorating. Then it started showing up in the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Writing. Cartooning. Painting huge building murals. Building furniture. One great-granddaughter illustrated her first book at age 14. Another great-grandson self-published his first novel at age 13. The influence of her choice continues to ripple down through the generations.
While we were still young, Mom volunteered to be a Camp Fire Girls leader. Her ASKing questions for this situation went something like this: “Why not do something exciting? Why not take the girls on a trip from our home in Washington state to see the Capitol in Washington, D.C.? It would take a huge amount of money for airline tickets, but why not?” The girls could raise the money themselves in such a way that their fundraising projects would build good qualities such as being responsible, creative, diligent, and persevering—plus, they could learn to work together as a team, as well. She thought of two projects that would accomplish all that. For the first project, she took all her Camp Fire girls to the nearby university and went to every floor of each dorm, sorority, and fraternity explaining their goal. Then, they set out pick-up boxes and collected, sorted, cleaned, ironed, and organized high-quality clothes that the college kids didn’t want anymore. They advertised their sale as the Biggest Ultimate Yard Sale. It lived up to their claims and was an incredible success!
Next, she sat down with me and described her plan for a theatrical production for the community. While I wrote the script for what she had described, Mom and her Camp Fire girls prepared hundreds of advertisements. The play, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” had many creative twists and surprises that went well beyond the Disney version!
With the script finalized, the girls practiced their lines and painted the stage backgrounds. Others worked on the incredible costumes while Shirley enlisted volunteers from the community, which only helped spread the word. They presented their amazing play to a packed house with standing room only. So off they went, flying across the nation to Washington, D.C.!
We learned to think beyond the limits by watching Mom. She also impacted many generations by teaching her children to love work. Instead of telling them to do something, she usually said, “Let’s go do it.” She worked alongside her children and helped them succeed in doing it “themselves” while quietly helping the project turn out right.
Mom knew how to turn work into fun. Since gardening involved the hard work of harvesting, she worked alongside her daughters picking beans, peas, corn, and chard and pulling weeds as they went. They had “row races” (who could pick to the end of the row first?) and listened to her tell stories of her youth as they snapped beans. She herself did not like to shell peas, so she made that job extra fun so that to this day, her girls enjoy it most! She showed her children how to can and freeze produce, how to butcher chickens, how to sew, how to make butter and ice cream.
One of her daughters, my sister Vickie, decided to go beyond regular gardening. She applied for and received a grant for a 60-by-30-foot greenhouse. Vickie, her children, and her grandchildren grow and harvest 26 naturally grown vegetables, from which she developed a special, super-nutritious veggie powder that can be added to cakes, cookies, pancakes, salad dressings, and more, as a great way to help veggie haters eat vegetables! In addition, Vickie and her husband Larry opened their farm for weddings, reunions, retreats, church camps, school farm field trips, vacations, holiday gatherings, dinners, parties, and camp-outs. It is all a result of Mom’s influence, which has inspired all of us to live beyond the limits and have fun doing it!
Life has its challenges, but she challenges life right back. In her 60s, she could arm wrestle the older grandchildren—and win. In her 70s, she buzzed all over the nation to visit her kids. In her 80s, we have found her outside jumping on the trampoline with the kids or riding down the wooden stairs on a piece of cardboard with her great-grandsons. In her 90s, she would let the grandkids climb onto her shoulders. “Why get old? It’s a waste of good time,” she tells us.
After her husband died and all her children had grown up and left the nest, Mom didn’t have the teamwork she used to have. One time, when she returned from visiting one of her children who had given her a medium-sized refrigerator (which fit into the back of her Subaru), no one was around to help her unload it when she got home. She decided to do it herself. Before long, she had unloaded the fridge, walked it into the house—and up the stairs. Then, she took her old, worn-out refrigerator down the stairs and left it outside the garage. She was 88 years old at the time.
Mom is showing us how to be “ageless”! She figures that “if God says He renews my youth as the eagle’s, then I am going to believe Him.”
Perhaps the one statement that embodies Mom’s greatest influence is her advice to her children whenever they faced life’s tough situations. “Figure it out!” she would confidently challenge them. “Somebody has to figure it out, and it might as well be you!”
She has been ASKing God to show her how to do things all her life. She reminds Him, “You said I could do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And she does!
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.