When people asked him his secret to living past 100, my Grandpa Olaf had a standard response: “Don’t die!” But truth be told, he had more going for him than just his sense of humor and hardy Norwegian genes. My grandpa actually DID have a secrets, rules he lived by that help explain his long and good life.
My Grandpa Olaf – who would have turned 104 this week – was born in 1907 and died in his sleep right before Christmas 2008. My middle son cried even more than I did when we got the news. I’m so thankful that my children knew him well, the man with the Winnie-the-Pooh voice. The man full of joie de vivre who taught me to ride a bike and twirled me on the dance floor at my wedding. The loving man who made the doll bed that my daughter’s Americal Girls “sleep” in today.
The amazing thing is that, not only did my Grandpa Olaf live to be 101, but he was still going so strong. When he was 99, my mom had to ask him to (please!) stop travelling . He did – internationally, at least – but he still got a huge kick out of showing people his ID with the 1907 birthdate. He did not get much of a kick, however, out of the fact that after he turned 100, the box marked “1907” disappeared as a birthdate choice on most online forms. That made him mad.
Some secrets are just not meant to be kept and I’m sure my Grandpa Olaf wouldn’t mind me sharing a few of his. So here goes:
Two almonds a day keep cancer away. From the time of my earliest memories, he had a big jar of raw almonds in the kitchen. When I stayed with my grandparents, he made me eat them, too. Turns out tat there is ongoing research on the phytochemicals in almonds which may have potential health benefits, including preventing cancer. In any event, almonds are cholesterol-free, a good source of dietary fiber, and high in monounsaturated fat (which lowers LDL cholesterol).
Show up!!! This was the guy who never missed a graduation – or any other important event in our lives, for that matter. He even bore witness to my brief stage career, which ended after a single performance of Alice in Wonderland in 5th grade at Wildwood Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La. (Guess who played Alice? Guess who memorized everyone else’s lines and said them for them – sotto voce – if they missed their cue? Afterwards, Grandpa Olaf said to me, “Well, Jen, you really gave it your all!”) As I grow older, I realize more and more how important it is to show up for the important events. My regrets definitely center more on things that I have not done and weddings I have missed than things that I have done.
Appreciate your spouse. Husband, wife, life partner, whatever. “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” My grandpa made this sign for my dad, who later gave it to my husband.
Never stop learning. He had a tough childhood in a poor, immigrant family. The kind where your Norwegian mama makes you take castor oil but you have to line your holey shoes with cardboard. He had to drop out of school to work and never made it past about sixth grade. But he valued education above all else, and sent his daughters to the best schools he could. He was so proud of my mother, the first in her family to get a PhD. As an adult, he chose to learn through experience. Between the ages of 65 and 99 – and particularly after age 80 – he traveled the world. (If you have a bucket list – Grandpa Olaf says to prioritize the Galapagos Islands.)
Make the effort to connect with people. My grandpa was a pretty social guy, one who believed strongly in getting out there and talking with people. He also liked to help and volunteered his skills with a number of nonprofits, fixing things for seniors and building community theater sets. He lived for the last decade or so of his life at the Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon; people there called him “The Mayor”.
Fight for what’s right. A union member for nearly 70 years, my grandpa used to tell me stories about having to wear flannel pjs under his wafer-thin airplane mechanic uniform in the Minnesota sub-zero winter cold. He was part of the fight for every benefit and workplace protection, from insulated uniforms and hearing protection to paid vacation to safety regulations. He was really, really proud of that.
Spend time with children. I fondly remember my grandfather reading the Brer Rabbit stories to me and my brother, but he also spun us wild yarns about a character of his own invention – Redpants Cookie. From what I remember of this young, maroon-chaps-wearing cowboy, he always returned safely home from his adventures to find a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. (If I ever write a children’s book, this is it, so don’t go stealing my Redpants Cookie!) What I didn’t realize until his memorial service was that, in addition to me, my brother, and our cousins, he had been Grandpa to his second wife’s grandchildren as well.
Talk about things, don’t bottle them up inside. My grandfather was an airplane mechanic in the Pacific during World War II. He saw a lot of stuff, but what really troubled him was taking the returning POWs off the planes. Like most of his generation, he didn’t talk about it for years. In his 90s, however, he would recount in vivid detail the helpless and emaciated bodies of these human rights victims. “I should have talked about this years ago,” he told me. ” I shouldn’t have kept it inside for so long.”
Don’t postpone joy. After my grandmother died, he went on an Elderhostel trip to Russia; my step-grandmother was on the same trip. When they returned, they decided to get married. They had only known each other for about a month, but at their age (he was 80, she was 70) – they figured, why wait? They were married for 21 years.
Seek your luck. As a boy in the late 1910s, he delivered papers in City Hall in Minneapolis. His job required that he run, carrying a heavy bag of newspapers, up many flights of stairs to the offices. There is a large marble sculpture, called “Father of Waters” after the nearby Mississippi River. According to legend, rubbing his big toe brings good luck. My Grandpa Olaf paused every day on his paper route to rub the big toe of the “Father of Waters”. Later in life, we visited the statue together. This week, on the 104th anniversary of his birth, I went by myself to City Hall and I rubbed that marble toe. I thought of my grandpa and all that he taught and me. And all he continues to teach me.