2004 by Susan Bowmer
My husband’s grandfather, “Grandpa Ray” Thompson lived almost 106 years, in his hometown of Farmland, IN. He was quite a character.
When my husband died, I wrote to Ray and his wife Mary that we had been married for “ten years and four days. Not nearly long enough!” A few years later, when Mary died, Ray wrote to me that they had been married “Seventy-five years, two months and eight days. Not nearly long enough!”
Retirement was not for Ray. When he got too old to work the farm, he became active in the local Civil Defense Unit, often being the first to arrive on the scene after a fire or tornado whipped through town. At his funeral, an old friend, Max, remembered hearing that Max’s daughter’s house had been blown away in a storm.
“I drove out there as fast as I could!” the man said. “I’ll never forget coming over the top of the hill and thinking everything would be just fine because Ray and Mary were already there, taking care of my daughter and granddaughter!”
At about age 90, Ray took a job as oral historian for the state of Indiana. Every few weeks he would receive a list of questions to be answered or topics to be discussed. He would dictate his answers into a tape recorder and mail back the tape.
“Anybody can tell you what was written down in books and newspapers,” Ray said. “But, I was there!”
Once, when he was in his nineties, I took my children to visit him. Farmland was having Founder’s Day complete with a carnival. Ray refused to get on any of the rides, but delighted in watching us careening about.
My daughters were about 5 and 10 at the time and we were having a ball! Several people stopped us, wanting to take pictures of the children. I thought they just wanted pictures of cute kids enjoying the carnival, until about the fourth time it happened.
“Why do you want pictures of my children?” I asked, knowing there were dozens of local children at the carnival, every bit as cute and happy as mine.
“We don’t want pictures of your children,” the man explained. “We want pictures of Grandpa Ray’s great-grandkids!” Since it was Founder’s Day and Grandpa Ray was not only the grandson of the town’s founders and a lifelong resident of the town, but the oldest man at the carnival, he was asked to make a speech. He said he wasn’t the oldest man in town and until the fellow who was six months older moved or passed away, he would decline the honor.
The carnival had to be shut down when a sudden storm knocked out the electricity. In the near-darkness, many people were stranded on the Ferris wheel and other rides. As police and firefighters struggled to help them, the rest of the crowd adopted a herd mentality, rushing towards the parking lot. Ray and I had lost sight of my children and were just about to worry when we heard them yelling, “Walk don’t run! Keep your heads down!” to the frightened adults.
“They sound just like their great-grandfather!” a man exclaimed. Ray just grinned.
He once told me he wasn’t sure how old he really was. I had called on his birthday to congratulate him on living so long and he told me he had gotten out the birth certificate but felt it was wrong.
“According to this I am 97!” he said. “I don’t think that’s right though. I don’t feel a day over 80. Eighty-five tops!”
When Ray decided to have his knees replaced, he was in his nineties and had been widowed for several years. His daughter Dorothy was quite concerned about the effects of such an operation on a man his age. She asked the doctors what the results had been with knee replacements for men in their nineties. They admitted they had no idea because they’d never had patients that old.
I asked Ray why he was having the operations and he said,
“Because if I can’t take my girl friend dancing, somebody else will!”
During one visit, I asked to meet this “girl friend.” He said he wasn’t sure I’d approve, since she was a much younger woman.
“Eighty. Eighty-two tops,” he told me, with that familiar twinkle in his eye. “I’m not sure which, but I am sure too much a gentleman to ask!”
Ray had a lot of aches and pains, which come with living a long time.
The only one he ever talked to me about was the George Burns Syndrome. You may remember George Burns as being a man who lived about 100 years, and was happily married for most of them. When his wife Gracie Allen died, George started dating women half his age, then a third his age, then Brooke Shields, who was maybe one-fifth his age.
Ray said the cause of the George Burns Syndrome was living so long you can’t date women your own age--because they’re aren’t any!
Every year at Thanksgiving, Ray received a dinner invitation from a local businessman, Will, and Will’s mother Irma. Ray always declined, and no Thanksgiving was complete without Will and Irma stopping by Ray’s house for a quick visit and to “leave a plate.”
Although, quite stuffed from family dinners, Ray always acted as though one more plate of turkey dressing and side dishes had made his day.
“Are we related?” I asked Will one Thanksgiving as he and Irma were getting ready to leave.
“No. But, back in the Depression I got polio. I survived, but needed to wear braces. When I outgrew the braces, my family had no money for a new set. My dad had died and Mom was doing all she could for me and my brothers and sisters. She didn’t know what to do, so she went to the County Commission. The commissioners said the county had no funds to help me. Ray was a commissioner and told me to stay after the meeting.
“Even though he had his own household to feed, Ray reached into his wallet and came up with the money for the braces. I don’t think I would have survived if he and Mary had not paid for the braces.”
“When your husband is dead and all the work you can do is not enough to provide for your children, a gift like that means everything!” Irma said. “Every Thanksgiving and every other day of the year when I’m thinking about what I am most grateful for, Ray and Mary and the gift they gave us are on top of the list! It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if we didn’t stop by to let him know how we feel!”
Giving up his house and moving into the nursing home, at age 99, was hard on him, but, being Ray, he made the best of it.
“It’s a great place to pick up women!” he told me. “Men are outnumbered about ten to one. You don’t have to worry about who’s driving. And, if you fall asleep on your date-no problem-you’re both already home!”
My daughters wanted to plant a garden, so I had them call Grandpa Ray for advice. The phone bill almost set records, but the bond between two little girls and their great grandfather is priceless! Even though the children lost interest in the garden and it became overgrown with grass and weeds, we got a few miniature pumpkins and the best cantaloupe we ever tasted from it.
Hundreds of people turned out for Grandpa Ray’s one hundredth birthday. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, Ray circulated through the crowd, making each of his guests feel like the party was for him or her alone. Not only did he recognize each of his guests, but knew how everybody was related to everybody else.
The biggest honor of the day came when he met his newest descendent, his ten-day-old great-great-great granddaughter Mary Rae!
Ray’s death impacted more people than he could have known. He was quite a character and everyone who knew him felt enriched from the experience.
Throughout the funeral, I found myself thinking of the old song
“If you should survive
Think of all you’d derive
Out of Being Alive.
Here is the best part
You have a head start
If you are among the very young
Ray lived every day of his life more intensely than anyone
else I have met. While his lifetime of work and service certainly added
up to a life well lived, for those of us left behind, Ray’s 105 years of
life, are not nearly long enough!
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