98 Degrees: Words of Wisdom & Tales of Tenacity From My 98-Year-Old Nana
Ann Rhoads, better known as Mom to her six children, or Nana to her eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, turned 98 on December 8th.
This puts her in a very special “one percent” club, among the world's citizens.
It places her just twenty-two months shy of the Century Club.
It brings her about twenty-two years short of a hand-shake/hug-and-kiss agreement that she entered into with her eldest grandson, yours truly. I continually remind her of our deal, which has her remaining with us in physical form until age 120. At that point, as I tell her, we can sit back down at the table to re-negotiate, based upon her quality of life at that time.
One of the more recent occasions I reiterated this agreement was the day after her birthday, which was spent at a local South Jersey rehabilitation center, following a spell earlier in the month at the hospital with bronchial pneumonia, where she gamely once again fought off Father Time. During this visit, Nana sprung some preliminary negotiations on me. The least nagging or judgmental person I’ve been blessed to have met in this world yet, inserted a new clause of her own. The pitch? If she holds up her end of the bargain, her secretly-favorite grandchild (see what I did there, cuzzes?!?) must give up smoking on 12/8/28 if he hasn’t previously done so.
I took the deal on the spot.
My Aunt Ellen and I wheeled her out of the rehab center the next day, while Nana rode shotgun as I drove us home.
Since then, Nana has been rehabbing and improving at a gradual pace, because nothing moves too fast when you’re 98, besides perhaps the grains of sand through time’s hour glass.
It takes a village to raise a child, as the famous phrase goes.
But it also takes a lot of love, along with the help of a bevy of family, friends, physical therapists and physicians, to keep a near-centenarian running. Or walking. Or in this case, walking with the assistance of a walker, on occasion, along with requiring a designated “lifter” for the big ups-and-downs. While Nana certainly appreciates any displays of love, which in my humble opinion despite all our combined best efforts still doesn’t quite equate to the incredible amount of it she doles out, I know that a fate my grandmother likely fears worse than death is being a “burden” on the family she has been the long-standing matriarch of, along with the receivers and beneficiaries of so much of the love she has given.
It might occasionally take one of these folks, particularly when it’s one of her beloved grandchildren, to remind her to snap out of it with any talk of that burden nonsense. It’s also usually while in the presence of one of them, her own personal cheering section, that Nana sets a higher bar in her physical therapy sessions of doing leg exercises, or walker exercises around the apartment.
Age, along with two artificial hips, have rendered Nana’s mobility a perpetual work in progress.
Macular degeneration, has rendered Nana’s eyesight in a perpetual state of decline.
But she still has a love of life, a fighting spirit, and the considerable faculties of her sharp mind.
It’s a mind with a level of recall, that can usually call up the names of the seemingly impossible amount of someone’s, that she’s known at some point over the course of her incredibly long life.
Nana has long had a tendency to speak fast, while mumbling occasionally, as well as being prone to diversions or conversational off-roads, at times taking a circuitous route to the end of a story.
These are two traits that some who know me would say I’ve inherited, either by nature, nurture, or some combination of both. At 98, this might mean her companion will have to sometimes lean in a bit closer, to figure out what she’s saying, or where she’s going, but for those of us skilled in the practice of absorbing what Nana gives, her words continue to disperse jewels and bear fruit. I’ve learned a lot from her, just in the six months since returning from Los Angeles to the town where she raised her family and her middle daughter raised mine.
The bottom line, as we try to tell my grandmother all the time, is that we like having her around. She’s enough of a people-person to pick up on when would truly be the appropriate time to leave the party. But for now, Nana’s got more work left to do. Like getting back into her optimal 98 shape following this recent setback, getting her name announced by Al Roker on the ‘Today’ show once she reaches 100, or just making sure two decades later, that her eldest grandson has indeed smoked his last Newport 100.
“If you are a good reader. Your imagination goes along with you.”-Nana, 2017
Ann Hannigan, eventually to be known as Ann Rhoads, then Mom and now Nana, was born on a farm in Olean, New York, just outside of Buffalo. It is a North Eastern, often cold part of the United States, particularly in the winter. The above picture is the only known photo she has from the early years of her life, raised on the family farm.
“Despite the winters, we always had apples and grew our own vegetables. One Sunday when the snow was too high to get the car out, we took a sled to church, pulled by a horse."
Nana was once the baby of the bunch. The two oldest were her two sisters, the oldest Betty, followed by Helen. After that came her brother Bud, the closest to her in age. He was her idol, as well as best friend, growing up.
“Helen and I were friends, Betty and I used to fight a lot, but when we went out, we went out arm and arm. She could tell a good story.”
“Bud always went to bat for me, he taught me how to dance when we were teenagers. He was very patient, I was a pretty good follower as a dancer, Bud was more the showman. He played the clarinet too, he could play “Sweetie Sue” very well at the dances. But if a football game started outside, he would miss practice. Bud was always polite and nice at home, but then he would sneak out the side window to go out. I never told on him. We were buddies.”
The first decade of Nana’s life on the farm, progressed along pleasantly or uneventfully enough, but shortly thereafter, tragedy suddenly struck.
“Bud and I had just come home from school, Daddy was outside working. He was stepping for a twenty-foot ladder, but this ladder was only eighteen feet. The neighbor found him the same time I did, he fell and broke his back. The ladder was not as sturdy as it could have been. We took him to the hospital at Olean General. It happened on a Thursday night, I spent all day Friday with him, then he died on Saturday night. I was grateful to have that last bit of extra time with him. I was 11.”
Things, as one might expect, got progressively more difficult from there, as she headed into adolescence with her mother now sent into the workforce in order to keep the farm, and no father around the house anymore.
“I had a heck of a hard time in high school, I had a Catholic education, so I spent a lot of time worrying “is Daddy in purgatory?!?”, I didn’t really like high school too much. Back then Catholic school felt like a lot more fear, than faith. Nowadays, I have a lot of faith. I thank God for that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to God. It’s great to have that, it gives you a lot of reassurance.”
After a rough run in adolescence, Ann Hannigan’s fortunes turned when she met the man who along with her would result in me typing this today: Jack Rhoads.
“We were married in ’44. The first five years of marriage were the hardest, they didn’t seem hard at the time, because we were in love and we did what we had to do, but when I think about it now, it really was kind of hard.”
“I had twins (Mary & Ellen) the first year we were married, then sixteen months later I had your mother (Ann), then I hemorrhaged for about six weeks, then had depression for several months, but things did get better.”
“I had my boys (John & James) on Christmas morning in 1952, I didn’t know they were going to be twins. It was a surprise to everyone, in particular, your grandfather.”
There would be a sixth child, the youngest daughter Patty.
At the tender age of 50, she joined the workforce full-time.
“When I first got into real estate, at age 50, after all the kids moved out of the house, Jack said ‘Honey, don’t work so hard, but if you do, you’ll get an award this year’”.
“Whenever I’d feel like things were getting tough, he would always say ‘Keep going’. That was unusual, at least in those days, because men didn’t want a woman who worked a lot of the time.”
Sadly, the previous work that my grandfather had done, would go on to limit his time left shortly after his wife, with the kids out of the house, decided to go back to work.
“Jack was very sick from the asbestos for eight years while the kids were growing up. He was the Quality Control Manager of Owens Corning. Eventually, it came back. He died of cancer in September of 1984, but as you know, he fought hard, for us, and to live, like he always did. And the way he used to tell me ‘Keep Going’, I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing my best to do ever since he passed. But I still miss him. We always had quality time with each other.”
Jack would get to meet less than half of his grandchildren. I feel blessed to be one of the few of our cousins to have clear memories of him, some of which were detailed in one of the earliest stories posted on Something In The Wudder this summer.
Nana, would go on to meet them all, over the subsequent next three decades plus. In addition to that, she'd get to see those grandchildren, produce seven great-grandchildren thus far.
Does Nana remember her first time charged with looking after yours truly?
“I first babysat for you when you were two, you got upset about something and then you hid in the closet and were crying. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just decided to let you cry. I figured eventually, you’d get over it. And eventually, you did. You never gave me much of a fuss after that.”
Nana said “up to then” marrying Jack Rhoads was the proudest moment of her life, is that still the case?
“It’s still right near the top. But I’m truly proudest that I got healthy, mentally and physically, for me and for my children. They, along with all of their children and grandchildren, are my world.”
What are the three best things about living for more than 98 years?
" 1) Learning to be less critical, having more understanding.
2) Getting to watch my grandchildren grow up, and also meet my great-grandchildren. I think both generations are just wonderful.
3) Gaining more faith, with far less fear and judgment."
What are the three worst things about living for more than 98 years?
"1) Outliving my husband, and all my friends or relatives from my generation.
2) Eyesight and hearing not being as good as they once were.
3) Losing some of my independence."
"If I could do it over, I would have tried to be a better student, like your grandfather was."
Nana, any thoughts on current events, like maybe Donald Trump?
"I’m so glad we don’t talk politics in this house ;)"
This is my grandmother, everybody.
She is on the shortest of lists for favorite girls I’ve ever met in this world.
The above photo was taken at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, which she scaled to the top of a decade or so ago, while traveling with my parents, my sister and I on a trip to retrace family roots as well as have fun. She did all this, with two artificial hips, in the midst of an Irish rainstorm, while the wet wind whipped in from the sea.
I look forward to Nana's contractually obligated, upcoming twenty-two years minimum, that we have left to spend together.
Today is technically my birthday. But when I realized that I had one of Earth’s truly rich “one-percenters” in our family, it felt like it might be a good idea to pay homage to the person who's had 57 more of those than I have, with no plans of giving up her sizable lead.
I hope that those not blessed enough to already know this woman, can at least glean a little bit of the love that my family has for her, through some of these lines of hers and mine.
Because I guarantee, if you’re good people, love is something that she'd gladly reciprocate, while doing her best to build another solid lead on you, in how much she returns back.
That is a subject upon which I have great faith.