June 14, 2003


I’m in Melbourne for a few days, catching up with wonderful friends, researching a story, and also to have a few drinks with my grandmother, who just turned 92. “One of my sisters died last week,” she told me today (the sister was 95 - women in my family live forever). Then she rushed off to prepare for a party being thrown by a young friend of hers (only 65) while I complained about all the radar traps I passed on the drive from Sydney. “I know,” she snarled. “Coppers everywhere. And all for government revenue.” Then I realise I’m discussing the microsecond deployment of high-frequency radio waves to detect the speed of oncoming vehicles with someone whose school bus was pulled by a horse.

Find someone aged 90+ who is completely lucid and has forgotten nothing and talk to them awhile. It’s like chatting with the Smithsonian.

UPDATE. Please read the comments. Gold.

Posted by Tim Blair at June 14, 2003 01:25 AM

Verily. My ma's got a cousin who's Mum brought up her century last September and is still compus mentis. Always good value.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at June 14, 2003 at 01:44 AM

Wild, aren't they? My grandmother sometimes phones me to talk about football.

Posted by: tim at June 14, 2003 at 02:03 AM

My grandfather, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 100, was still hunting into his 90s. The last time he went out the recoil of the shotgun knocked him on his arse and his son had to help him back to his feet, but he got the goose.

Unfortunately, I was young and stupid when he was around and I regret not talking to him more when I had the chance. Even then though, I knew enough to occasionally be in awe that I was talking to someone who was born in the 1800s and had served in both world wars.

Posted by: Sean E at June 14, 2003 at 02:27 AM

Hey Tim - My grandfather passed away 2 weeks ago at the age of 93. He spent time in his life doing things such as hard hat scuba diving salvage, and gold mining on his own claim. A month before he passed away he was more lucid then 90% of the young people I know today. What a generation.

Posted by: swassociates at June 14, 2003 at 02:48 AM

funily enough my grandmothers 92 too! Walking talking flying and emailing!

Posted by: giles at June 14, 2003 at 03:37 AM

My grandmother Dora took the time to have her mother, Frenchie, make a tape recording of what it was like growing up in Louisiana at the turn of the century. So even though I was too young to hold decent conversations with her before she died, I still got to hear the tales - and they were fascinating.

Posted by: Celeste at June 14, 2003 at 03:49 AM

My grandparents are in their 80s and send me racy e-mail jokes they get from friends who are also elderly. I have to screen the e-mail before I let my children read it. Some of it leaves me blushing.

I love to hear them talk about their wwII courtship which consisted of not talking to each other for 3 years while gramps was off fighting. My hubby is in Iraq now and I get a little worried when I don't receive an e-mail for a week! Can't imagine going 3 whole years with only a few letters.

Posted by: Kelly at June 14, 2003 at 04:26 AM

My grandfather is 92 and still comes down to DC from Ohio every Christmas. We also are sure to make a trip to his farm every summer. The kids love it. He (still) trains racehorses on his farm, shovels sh*t, crawls on the jogging cart (they're pacers and trotters) and will have a go around the track with them. I'm convinced that having a reason to get out of bed in the morning is the key to longevity.

He was an engineer (the railroad kind) and my oldest son is absolutely ga-ga about trains (fe's 4 now). He wants to be a driver, "like Grandpa". Of course, Grandpa really didn't have much love for trains (though we don't tell his great grandson that), but growing up in the Depression, he was just glad to have a job.

I love to talk to him about the Depression, WWII (he said 9/11 was peanuts compared to the fear in the country after Pearl Harbor), the 60's, and of course, to get whatever dirt I can use on my mother.

Posted by: Matt at June 14, 2003 at 04:36 AM


My grandmother goes to three different doctors to get the same pills for non-existent conditions.

Posted by: Michael Demmons at June 14, 2003 at 05:25 AM

Did I accidenly log on to the "Chicken Soup for Grandparents" homepage?

Posted by: James Dudek at June 14, 2003 at 05:53 AM

My great-grandfather, Emmanuel Yeomans, was a celebrity in the WA wheatbelt. Arrived from England at the end of WW1, cleared his land with an axe, and lived to 103.

3 of the women in my family are currently 100+ and still going. Couldn't kill 'em if you tried. Unfortunately, unlike your grandmother, they all start losing the plot at around age 17.

Posted by: Yobbo at June 14, 2003 at 06:24 AM

My grandmother was born in 1892 and grew up in her father's lumber camp near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She remembered seeing her first electric light bulb when she was in her early teens. She also watched the first man to walk on the moon. It's amazing the changes she and her generation saw in their lifetime.

Posted by: Tom at June 14, 2003 at 06:42 AM

Very nice you got to visit with your Grandmother and realized this! I found the same thing when I used to spend several weeks with my grandmother at our summer cottage.

Born in 1898 she had lived thru some of the biggest changes in history. She remembered the Wright Brothers first flight well, and lived to have a grandson [my brother] who helped design the space shuttle.

Posted by: Wallace at June 14, 2003 at 08:37 AM

Sounds like a lot of commenters have very interesting grandparents. I'm jealous -- mine have been as dead as Kelsey's nuts for the last 20 years.

Posted by: Harry at June 14, 2003 at 09:38 AM

My grandfather and grandmother died when I was young, I would love to have talked to them about South Africa.

Posted by: Gary at June 14, 2003 at 09:53 AM

My grandma is 80 and knows more about politics (don't get her started on Vince Foster and how he really died) and the world than anybody I know. She grew up under Stalin. Her father died in his gulags for the crime of owning a bakery. Her two brothers died in WWII leaving her with her sister and mother. She was a lawyer in Russia when Jewish women like her really couldn't be, moved to America after she was 50, started a new career here. She continues to amaze me with her razor sharp brain and alarmingly accurate memory. Lately she's been saying she is getting old and I remind her that Reagan (her hero) was going into his second term at her age.

Posted by: Kashei at June 14, 2003 at 12:03 PM

I'm only forty plus, yet I am rarely lucid- what chance do you reckon I have with other family members? My Grandma went ga-ga at about eighty, an age my mother is rapidly approaching and she is worried about going the same way. I figure "I won't know what I'm doing or saying, it will be a huge embarrasment to my snooty kids, so win/win!"
My Dad only made it to 72 and his father about sixty or so, so I doubt if I will be around long enough to go completely nuts and embarass any kids I don't have. I have known some great old buggers, though, including one who flew Lancasters over Germany in WW2, but as most of them have been piss-artists none have gotten anywhere near a century.

Posted by: Paul Bickford at June 14, 2003 at 12:21 PM

My nana is in her seventies. I met her sister just once, and hoped to do it again..though I know I wont.

Her sister is well into her nineties and her mind is freakishly sharp. Had I not been looking at her, I wouldnt've known her age. She had been a chemist and grew up in Sydney. Her body was withered to almost nothing and yet her mind and her eyes were so intelligent. I only met her that once. I just hope I go to my grave that sharp and that comfortable with the end. I'm glad my dad got me to go to Sydney to see her. (I was L plater, driving to Sydney was practice. Harbour tunnel is scary for n00bie.) Wonder what things I'll witness should I live to see even 80.

Posted by: Ken at June 14, 2003 at 12:26 PM

Just a thought--

I know of no specific such person, but it's entirely possible that some little girl lived in Japan in 1845, in time to see Commodore Perry land there, finding that the Japanese had brand-new 17th-century Dutch firearms... and in her last years as an old grandmother, saw the atomic bombs fall in 1945.

That's got to be the biggest individual life-experience interval on the block, y'know?

Posted by: Brian Tiemann at June 14, 2003 at 12:33 PM

I think the biggest known lifetime of changes would be that of Jeanne Louise Calmet. Ms Calmet of France was born on the 21st of Feb 1875 and died on the 4th of August 1997. During her lifetime she witnessed two world wars, met Van Gogh and recorded a rap album in 1990.

Posted by: Chris Valentine at June 14, 2003 at 01:17 PM

I'm 55, Dad is 84, between the two of us we have eleven years of combat behind us. We could tell some really interesting stories, but we don't. That would be telling war stories. Oh, and Mom waited for Dad to come back from three freaking wars and me just twice. Her story would probably rip you apart, Dad and I just love her.

Posted by: Bob at June 14, 2003 at 04:22 PM

Ditto Harry with the nuts. Dead a long time. And also with Paul.B. Mine had Oldtimers Disease. Completely nuts! Watering the road with no pants on and stuff like that.

Posted by: Tony.T at June 14, 2003 at 04:44 PM

Let's see...
Paternal Grandpa landed at Gallipoli (he was a sniper with the Sherwood Foresters, which means he was in the first wave on several landings, in the first day, out the third then in again for the next one, as were all the snipers from the UK and ANZAC Corps). I can still remember him telling me about the Camels he rode in Egypt before the landings, and his experiences on the Somme in 1916. He died of his wounds a few years after we emigrated to Australia, and my Paternal Grandmother soon after.
Maternal Grandfather died before I was born, Coalmining is a dangerous business even now, if the cave-ins didn't get you, Black Lung disease would. Maternal Grandmother died during an air raid in WW2.

My Father was in charge of rescue teams in Liverpool during the "Baby Blitz" - as a 19 year old Engineering student, he knew how to calculate stresses and strains in bombed buildings and to locate places where it was safe to tunnel to get the survivors out. In 1945 he was working on a Supersonic Aircraft project, the Miles M52, and later was in on some of the first computer developments. He died just shy of 10 years ago.
My Mother's still living here in Canberra, and is still thinking about where to put the Internet connection she's getting soon.

My Wife's Father is missing an arm due to WW2, but is still up and about, helping his kids - and until recently could beat me at Squash. My Wife's Mum lives next door, and was part of Macarthur's staff during WW2. She's a godsend.

My son Andrew's turning 2 next month, and is the spitting image of my wife's father. I'll make sure he knows his ancestry.

Posted by: Alan E Brain at June 14, 2003 at 05:52 PM

You shot what in the who now?

Posted by: Big Ramifications at June 14, 2003 at 07:48 PM

My grandmother died in her nineties a few years ago in the West Country (of England). She lived on the south coast of England during the Battle of Britain. Watched the dogfights that saved the world from the thousand year terror. Her father owned a store, it was bombed with a cellar full of people and she recalled the carnage.

Posted by: Andy H at June 14, 2003 at 11:35 PM

The scary thing is that my 91 year-old grandmother knows a lot more than anyone ever suspected and no longer cares who knows it. She's a lot more fun these days - though terrifyingly worldly.

Posted by: Craig Ranapia at June 15, 2003 at 12:03 AM

My grandfather was born in the late 1880's. My favorite story was about him being the first person in the county to have a car with balloon (pneumatic) tires. Said everyone laughed at him and told him they'd never work, because you need hard, skinny wheels to get down to hard ground when going through mud puddles (this was sometime around 1910 or so, I think, and no macadam or concrete roads.) He also talked about driving up a local hill in reverse because it was so steep and the reverse gear pulled stronger than any gear in forward.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie at June 15, 2003 at 12:08 AM

It's just occured to me- a horrible thought- Is Tims Granny a Collingwood supporter?

I think he might need to redefine lucid.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein at June 15, 2003 at 02:23 AM

Brian, re: your comment about "life-span changing events." I dunno, how about the little boy at Kitty Hawk in 1903 watching the Columbia disaster, 100 years later?

Posted by: Eric at June 15, 2003 at 02:31 AM

My sainted aunt died recently at the age of 101 (shortly after receiving her letter from ER II)in Hastings, E. Sussex. She described herself as "a Victorian", which was technically true though she served as a "tea dolly" in France during WW I and as an air raid warden in London during The Blitz.

An avid and enthusiastic smoker, she belonged to a smokers' rights organization at her death. Nevertheless, her favorite lecture was on the present generation's preference for "rights over responsibilities" about which she would quote Kipling by heart.

She was an authority on the Prophet Amos. I miss her.

Posted by: Theodopoulos Pherecydes at June 15, 2003 at 03:45 AM

Only slightly off topic: I believe the blogosphere itself is not as young as people think it is. I was reading on Buzz Machine the other day, Jeff Jarvis' witty repostes to people who accusing him of favoring "seniorish" bloggers. But I'm older than Jeff (I admit it--59) and I just started blogging a couple of months ago. Although I have been a professional novelist and screenwriter all my life, having to put something up there on the computer monitor every day is keeping my brain young (sort of like doing mental pushups). Keeps you young. If many of us are still blogging at ninety, it may wreak havoc with the bandwidth but, I predict, it will lower the rate of Alzheimer's.

Posted by: Roger L. Simon at June 15, 2003 at 06:14 AM

As someone who works in the aged care industry I'm always staggered at the lack of interest journalists and historians have in the treasure chest of memories and first hand recollections of history most nursing home residents have.
In the last 9 years I've spoken at length to very lucid survivors of the Burma Railroad and Changi,an AIF engineer who saw the Prince Of Wales sink,huge numbers of great depression survivors who actually recall what real hunger feels like,army nurses who survived Japanese torture and one ancient lighthorseman who told me how still the desert night was before the assault on Damascus began.
I've tried to interest journos in this a number of times - no success.
But I'll start my own records one of these days - it mightn't be a bestseller but it might interest my grandchildren!

Posted by: Jim at June 15, 2003 at 11:53 AM

If you want to hear fascinating stories, ask the elderly how they met their husbands/wives. Not only do you get all the facts, you get a world of details that would put the average novelist to shame, plus the realization that daily life in 1917 wasn't so different from daily life in 2003, apart from the technology.

I found this out by chance with my father's mother one day, and my jaw was on the floor for the next hour. I used this in a more purposeful way with my mother's father a few years later, and my jaw was on the floor for a week.

Posted by: Bill Sakovich at June 15, 2003 at 01:11 PM

Timely blog, Tim. Yesterday we had a party for my Dad's 81st and his five remaining brothers and sisters -- 75 to 90 -- turned up and had a grand time. Dad -- who chucked away a copy boy's job at the Sun to sign up underage and fight in the Middle East and New Guinea -- is no great public speaker, but he cracked me up with his ''thank you all for coming, it's bloody wonderful. Well it's a lot better than a wake! and that's about all I've got to say.''

Posted by: slatts at June 15, 2003 at 01:57 PM

My dad turned 97 a month ago. He lives alone, having outlived just about everybody. He's still perfectly lucid. He "retired" from his second career driving for Meals On Wheels, and volunteering at the local hospital, "helping the elderly," as he put it, three years ago.

He never served in the military, but if Matt Welch is looking for somebody who not only knows more about baseball, but saw more of it in person than he did, my dad is his man.

I inherited my futile love of the Detroit Tigers from him. And my sneaking suspicion that, as dad puts it, "those new-fangled teams" (like the Angels) aren't fit to fondle the jocks of the players he cut his teeth on: Cobb, "Big Train" Johnson, Gehringer, Ruth, and dad's all-time fave, Bob Feller.

Posted by: Bill Quick at June 15, 2003 at 03:02 PM

My grandmother died in 1998 at 105. She was the oldest woman in Mason County, Illinois. Unfortunately, in the very last years of her life she was pretty inert, but she lived by herself (with some help) until she was 99.

Years ago, doing some half-assed oral history of her, I asked if she remembered the first time she had really been frightened. She said it was when her uncle came home from the war and insisted on showing her his skill at rifle drill. So of course he starts slinging his gun around like a maniac and it goes off, the bullet, according to grandma, "parting" her hair. I asked, what war was this, anyway. Why, the Spanish-American War, she said. Good God, I'm not even 40 yet and my grandmother remembered the Spanish-American War (1898, I think). Freaks me out.

Posted by: JGM at June 16, 2003 at 05:26 PM

My next door neighbour spent his life working in the industry i'm getting into (mech. eng.) and when I talk about stuff with him about it, he can still remember when all the things I take for granted, like high-speed steel and aluminium, weren't around, and in fact, can remember when they were invented.

Crazy town.

Posted by: bailz at June 16, 2003 at 09:24 PM

Ooops, forgot to mention that my next door neighbour was 87. He's a pretty cool dude actually, spends more cash per year on computers than me, and that's a fucking event in itself.

Posted by: bailz at June 16, 2003 at 09:25 PM

Just to add my message about my grandfather...

He fought against cancer and a triple bypass heart operation.

He fought against the Japanese in New Guinea in World War 2.

But the best? He fought against Collingwood when he played for the Saints in the VFL.

Posted by: .. at June 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM

My grandfather passed away just days before his birthday back in 2000. He was training for the invasion of Japan when Truman dropped the bomb. He pitched pro baseball for the Boston Braves, then made even more money pitching amateur baseball in Canada. How's that for wierd?

He also survived pentuple bypass surgery, a severed finger (which was sewn back on), multiple breaks, and an incredible diet of deep fried everything and scotch. He had the the constitution of a vending machine. I wish he was here.

Posted by: hbchrist at June 17, 2003 at 07:17 AM

Roger, I'm 50, and most of the blogs I read are written by middle-aged folks.

Reading all this makes me look forward to my second half.

Posted by: Yehudit at June 17, 2003 at 10:14 PM

My grandad invested a lot of money in the development of Concorde, which I've always thought was really cool! (I adore old people and listening to their memories - I don't understand how anyone can find war stories and the like anything less than riveting.) Long live ancestors!

Posted by: Liz at June 18, 2003 at 08:36 AM