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Down on the Farm: The secret to longevity

My great-aunt Olive turned 100 years-old last week. It is difficult to imagine that she was born in 1911, before the start of World War I.

Aunt Olive remembers seeing Charles Lindbergh fly over on a barnstorming tour. She remembers seeing her first car. She remembers when women were finally given the right to vote in 1919.

Others of her memories might seem strange to people born later: Olive remembers the first woman in the neighborhood to purchase a purse.

A purse was a new-fangled idea at that time and nobody on the farm could afford one. This woman, however, flaunted her wealth and lugged along her purse wherever she went.

Her mortified relatives apologized to Aunt Olive's family when the woman had the gall to bring her purse along over for supper. What a rude display of wealth!

The next-door neighbors of Aunt Olive's family, the Ericksons, were also wealthy. The measure of their wealth? A three-hole outhouse. Most other farms made do with a one-holer.

While we were driving through the countryside near her old stomping grounds a few years ago, Aunt Olive pointed out an old church.

"That's where I attended my first funeral," she said.

The service was for a six-year-old classmate who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. I tried to imagine how those who attended the funeral dressed. No doubt, there were horses and buggies lined up outside.

A more obvious question for a 100-year-old: what is the secret to your longevity?

Aunt Olive would right away tell you it has been her vitamins. She takes various miracle supplements daily.

Fortunately, nursing homes have liberalized their attitudes towards mail-order pills and they just let Olive take whatever she wants.

However, I don't think the pills have much to do with it. The secret to Aunt Olive's longevity, I argue, is her attitude. Her outlook on life has always been delusionally positive.

There is simply nothing that can happen that Olive will not say was for the best.

When Aunt Olive got the flu two years ago, she so enjoyed getting hot blankets and lemon tea from the staff at what she calls the Fertile Hilton.

"It was like a cruise," she said. "I almost hated to get well!"

When Aunt Olive ends up in the hospital with a broken limb or a heart attack, she is always so grateful to get a chance to meet those nice new nurses.

Her eyesight is going. "This mackerel degeneration is no fun," she says, immediately adding that she's just grateful to be able to see at all.

Her brain is going. "I lost a big chunk of my brain last month," she said last week before her 100th birthday party. "I am going to have to just bluff my way through."

Bluff her way through, she did. But she had been planning this party for a year, and she was ready.

When I assured her we had enough cake for 200 people, she said, "Well, you'll just have to get donuts for the rest."

People came from far and wide. One of her students from 71 years ago drove over from the Iron Range. Her best friend from her days of teaching in Las Vegas flew in with her husband.

Relatives came from hundreds of miles distant, as did local friends Olive has met since she moved into the Fertile Hilton five years ago.

The party was to start at 2 p.m., but Aunt Olive got up at 7 a.m. and started primping with the help of the Hilton staff. By noon, she called, wanting a ride, ready to roll.

When we pulled back into the Hilton eight hours later, after she had greeted dozens of people and held court for hours, Olive said, "Funny, I feel more peppy than when we left!"

Aunt Olive despaired a bit in the car on the way home. So many people came. Former students. Old friends. Long-lost relatives. How was she even going to remember everybody who showed up to her party?

I assured her that the huge box of cards in the back seat would give her a winter's worth of memories.

Then, Olive settled the dilemma herself.

"I am 100 years old!" she said, as if it had just hit her. "You'd think that would earn me a little slack!"