What a difference a century makes

Future Tense for Nov. 05, 2007

My grandmother died two years ago tomorrow, on Nov. 6, 2005. She was 104-1/2 years old and had witnessed almost all of the 20th century.

Doris Corinne Lantz Moschel was born on April 27, 1901, on a farm on northeast Missouri.

Her heritage was Scots-Irish on her mother’s side, German on her father’s. They eventually had nine or 10 children. When Doris was born, her family had been in Missouri for several generations. Doris’ personal papers include a uncle’s letter written just before he joined the Confederate Army. Lantzes were well-established, though not prosperous.

They grew most of the food they ate, including fruit from their orchard, vegetables from a large garden and their own chickens, pork and beef. Fish and turtles came from a nearby river. They used horses, mules and “shank’s mare” (walking) for transportation. They attended church faithfully, made sure that Doris and her siblings received at least an eighth-grade education in a one-room school and provided much of their own entertainment by singing or playing a variety of musical instruments (Doris became an accomplished pianist and earned money as a teenager by providing the musical accompaniment to silent films in the local theater). The family later moved into town and Doris graduated from high school.

It must have been a healthy lifestyle. Only one Lantz child died in the 1918 flu pandemic.

Doris married young and moved with her husband to a small city in Kansas where they set up a bakery. The business failed and the couple went to live with his relatives in Chillicothe, Mo. There they had a daughter, my late mother, my grandmother’s only child and the true love of her life.

The marriage foundered and Doris and her daughter moved to Kansas City.

The Great Depression struck in 1929. Doris had a steady job as a waitress, but it didn’t pay much. She saved her tips so she could buy my mother “nice clothes” for school -- she didn’t want her daughter to be embarrassed because they were poor -- and often only ate at work to save more money. I don’t know whether that established her habit, but Doris ate sparingly for as long as I knew her and she always had a slender figure.

Doris met and eventually married J.I. Marshall who took his new wife and stepdaughter to Washington, D.C. where, as I’ve written before, he became one of two general construction superintendents who built the Pentagon. For the first time in her life, Doris had plenty of money. Nevertheless, she insisted on working and became a secretary for the Hod Carriers and Building Laborers Union, the job from which she eventually retired. She collected a pension for nearly 40 years.

J.I. died of a heart attack, her daughter married and moved away and Doris watched her siblings and their children spread across the United States.

The Marshalls’ best friends in Washington were Ernie Moschel, a government construction supervisor, and his wife. Some years later, after Ernie’s wife died, he and Doris were wed and she moved again, this time to St. Louis, Mo.

After Ernie’s death, Doris moved in with a sister in Port Hueneme, Calif., where she loved walking at least three miles daily along the beach. She completed a 5-kilometer walk-a-thon in her 90s, collected a small cash prize for winning in her age group, and proudly donated the money to her church. The pensions gave her more than enough money for living expenses. She got Social Security, too, and collected it so long that government inspectors occasionally checked to confirm she was still alive. Her real wealth, however, was in the real estate. That close-to-the-ocean bungalow in Port Hueneme was just about worth its weight in silver.

After her sister died, Doris sold the Port Hueneme house and moved to La Grange, Ill., to live near her daughter, who died a few years ago. Surely the saddest task any parent might face is burying one of their children. Doris grieved quietly, but went on with her life, joking that she planned to stay around at least until my mother’s beloved Chicago Cubs won a World Series. She continued walking until August 2005, when her heart began to fail. It stopped beating about 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Only two people among every 10,000 Americans lives to be 100 years old or older. Good genes help; being born in April, like Doris, does not (the Society of Actuaries published a study a few years ago that says people born in October and November tend to have the longest life expectancy). Like many other centenarians, Doris never smoked. She drank alcohol in moderation (usually, that is; she and a visiting friend got schnockered on sherry a couple of years ago, so the nursing home staff started rationing Doris’ wine). She always ate small meals. I mentioned that she exercised by walking daily. She also exercised her mind by reading, listening to music and debating politics. During her years in Washington she developed a decidedly low opinion of politicians; she always voted Republican, but considered the GOP the lesser of two evils.

In 2000, the Census Bureau counted 50,000 centenarians in the United States — up 20,000 from a decade earlier — not including Doris, who was a year too young. When Doris died five years later there were about 76,000. Despite all of the buzz about Baby Boomers’ moving into retirement age, the fastest-growing segment of the population is, and will continue to be, centenarians.

How old can people become? The oldest living American is a woman, Edna Parker, born April 20, 1893. Two other living American women also were born that year.

The all-time certified record for longevity belongs to a French woman, Jeanne Calment, who was 122-1/2 when she died in 1997.

Such achievements are rare. The Guinness Book of World Records counts only 800 documented cases of people who have reached 110 years or older.

But bear in mind that current centenarians grew up without the benefit of many modern advances in medicine. With better medications, immunizations and knowledge about healthy lifestyles, more and more people will pass the century mark. By one estimate, there will be more than 800,000 centenarian Americans in 2050.

I’ll never know another woman like my grandmother Doris, but we all will see more men and women who match or exceed her longevity ... in the future.

———

Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com.



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