Monday, February 28, 2011

A gift of longevity

Sam sings a birthday song to sister Alice.

Centenarian Aunt Alice

marvels at every day

But she'd rather still be dancing

“Every day is a gift,” she says, arms stretched wide in embrace of her world – at one level very tiny, at another limitless in wonder.

By her measure of “every day,” Alice Ettlin Krupsaw has had a lot of gifts – roughly 37,985 as of Monday, when she celebrated yet another birthday. She is a young 104 and, according to the Maryland Department of Aging, among some 1,661 living centenarians in the state.

Her physical world for nearly a decade has been the Milford Manor nursing home on the northwestern edge of Baltimore, after the loss of a leg to a blood clot. Alice used to dance there, with a local troupe of entertainers who staged shows at nursing homes and senior centers – she was never shy about donning the fruit-basket hat and channeling her version of Carmen Miranda. She’s often said how she never imagined being the one in the wheelchair.

A widow for half a century, and childless, Alice had filled her apartment with hundreds of dolls and stuffed animals – many of them her own creations. They had names and identities, even a marriage in a Jewish wedding scene that Alice had crafted for her pretend children. And she knitted finger puppets that were donated to hospitals and orphanages in the Baltimore area and Israel, to amuse or ease the pain of real children she had never met.

She kept every thank-you letter and certificate of appreciation in scrapbooks, along with documentation of her career among the thousands of invisible federal workers in seemingly nondescript jobs. Four decades ago, she retired from a clerical position at the Social Security Administration headquarters where she was crowned “queen of the Xerox machine.” She turned her attention to caring for her elderly parents in their last years, then moved into the apartment.

Some of the scrapbooks are filled with pictures, showing family, friends, trips with late husband Lou Krupsaw out West and to Havana, in nightclubs, on horseback, with their dogs. Her parents (my paternal grandparents) appear with two other couples, all decked out in what could only be considered Eastern European finery, in a photo taken on New Year’s Eve 1948 in a Romanian restaurant in New York City. Alice would point to one of the other couples, saying, “They’re [filmmaker] Barry Levinson’s grandparents.”

Louis Ettlin, a tailor, came to America from Russia in 1904 with his wife, Ida, who had taught dancing in the old country. They had three children -- Alice in 1907, my late father Ben in 1911, and Sam in 1919.

A treasured, slightly torn snapshot shows Ida Ettlin with a pretty teenage Alice on the beach at Atlantic City where, she says, a talent scout saw her and said she could become a model.

Instead, she married young, worked hard, and imagined. While she and Lou ran a small grocery store, she started writing a novel with a pencil on butcher paper. For a very long time after Lou's death, she made dolls and paintings, wrote poetry, and danced in nursing homes. I doubt she ever smoked and, the old nightclub photos notwithstanding, I could not imagine her having a drink.

At Milford Manor, she battles with her latest hearing device, solves word-search puzzles, reads old, large-print magazines, and wonders about futures she knows she will never see.

In her earliest photos, some cars have crank-starts or running boards. She was born, after all, in 1907 – and in those days, horses and buggies were common. It was only three years after Baltimore’s central business district was consumed in the Great Fire.

Some of her early memories are included in her book, “An Even 100,” edited and published by my wife, Bonnie Schupp, for Alice’s centennial birthday in 2007. There’s also a sampling of her poetry, family photos, and pictures of some of her paintings – the work of an untrained artist every bit in the spirit of “Grandma Moses.”

In 2008, on her 101st birthday, Bonnie recorded Alice singing her favorite song, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” and posted the video on YouTube. This July, a bit of it was shown on CNN as one of reporter Josh Lev’s “viral video” picks. It only had about 2,000 hits at the time, but Lev raved about how much he liked it – and now, it has been viewed by more than 6,000 people. Alice marvels at seeing herself on a computer screen, as much as the idea that she lived to see man walk on the moon.

At 104, she repeats herself a bit, but her mind remains mostly sharp. She’s somewhat of a celebrity at Milford Manor as its oldest resident and, it goes without saying, poet laureate. Each edition of its monthly bulletin includes one of her poems.

Her “baby brother,” my uncle Sam Ettlin, flew in from Florida for the weekend to help celebrate her birthday with his son Dennis and daughter-in-law Patty, my late brother Larry’s wife Natalie (who devotes considerable time looking in on Alice), her son Greg, and Bonnie and me. On Sunday, at the party in Alice’s room, we had crabcakes and birthday cake, and Sam – a young-looking 91 – sang her a birthday song and played on his harmonica, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” The tune dates to 1928.

“My family comes from the Ukraine,” he says, spinning a tale about familial longevity and his great-grandfather, who is reputed to have lived to 104. “He walked outside to draw water from the well,” Sam said, “but fell and hit his head. He died soon after. If he had just stayed inside, he’d be 178.”

Storytelling seems to run in the family.

Monday afternoon, on her actual birthday, there was another party – this one a surprise proposed by her younger, down-the-hall friend Ethel Vanger, staged by Milford Manor activities organizers, and attended by nearly a dozen residents parked side-by-side around a long table in their wheelchairs.

No such thing as too many parties when you’re 104, when you’re happy (as much as circumstance might allow), and you know it. And when they sang the birthday song, Alice joyously clapped her hands.

"Thank you, thank you!" she cried out. "I'll never forget this day."

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