She was born in a year when people died like poisoned rats.
Blood-soaked battles in Europe's crossroads flipped the odds of the Great War. A flu epidemic strangled its victims silently and efficiently in the world's streets, outslaughtering the human killers.
Yet you would not guess that gloomy legacy from one gentle life that got under way in 1918.
Grace Chauncey will celebrate her 90th birthday in September. She has asked for a quiet family celebration, and her daughter will honor that request.
I'll tell you her story. But first, let me tell you this: If, in youthful heedlessness, we think living to be 90 means just waiting to die, we need to think again.
A steely blade
Thank God for the babies of 1918.
Grace, the one I know best, will not credit herself with anything. But she shucked poverty like a worn-out frock, then spent a lifetime fighting ignorance one mind at a time in rural eastern North Carolina. Most of her schoolchildren put the ideas and the information she offered to use and improved themselves.
Grace's eyes no longer see everything in front of her. Her voice falters if the weather is harsh or damp. But her nine decades have left her with a blade of steely wisdom running straight down her back.
Being old and wise is shunned by a world hell-bent on youth and shiny objects. I fall into that trap myself. But let me tell you this: We would grow much richer if people like Grace were put in charge.
The nine decades have been no cakewalk.
She got an education by making choices. Skip lunch, and ride the bus to class? Or, walk 16 blocks twice a day, and afford to eat a pack of nabs?
She found the man she loved early in her life. Then she lost him when she was just my age: 52.
In between, oh, the things she's seen.
Banks went bust and men plunged to the pavement.
Six million human beings were butchered because of who they were.
A madman bent on hate propelled people to fly loaded airliners into buildings.
Grace, however, sees it all her way. She has a way of going to the heart of things.
She and Daddy had more love in 25 years, she says, than most people have in a lifetime.
Living through a war was hard, but it was for a purpose.
She believes that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.
That outright hopefulness speaks the loudest about what it takes, besides good genes, to live as long as she has.
New lease on life
I called my mother on a recent Saturday when the afternoon mercury climbed just shy of three digits. Such days are long for her.
She stays in because heat wears her out. Eye trouble has closed her life to books and sewing, two things she loves. When it's hot, and she's stuck inside, she can get a little blue.
I was mopey that day myself, awash in self-pity over hard economic times that have hit home with my livelihood.
“What are you doing?” I asked when Grace answered.
“I'm having the time of my life!” she said. It caught me by surprise.
Must have an all-day, all-girl bridge game going on, I thought. But that wasn't it.
No, she had found a new lease on life. She'd bought this wonderful tape that you can iron on skirts and pants to hem them. So she was transforming her wardrobe to this year's stylish lengths.
“Just wait until they see me at church tomorrow,” she said. “I'll be the best looking one there!”
Every word she said cheered me more.
Without saying so directly, Grace set me straight on what you need to survive – and be happy – in this old world.
Nine decades later, 1918 stands as one of cruel and momentous suffering, a time when man set out to destroy man in record numbers and when the most fatal infectious disease on record ruthlessly took human lives.
What would we do without the people who have lived long enough to show us how to take it in stride?