“I was always active and energetic, not a person to sit for a long period of time,” Muriel told me. A traditional housewife and mother of three in the 1950s, she worked as a teacher-director at a cooperative nursery school for 16 years.
It was a time of strictly defined gender roles. Despite working full-time, Muriel did the shopping, cooking, and cared for the children.
“I would finish up the school day and was home by 3:30 in the afternoon. I always did a lot of planning ahead. I did a lot of things after everybody got into bed.”
With dinner done and her husband and kids in bed by 9:30, Muriel would start cleaning, washing, ironing and planning meals for the next day.
“At 11:00, I’d sit down and watch the news and Jack Paar, or Johnny Carson, then drag my head off the pillow the next the morning.”
Despite her drive and hard work, Muriel describes herself as very lucky. “In many cases, things have come to me.”
Consider her good fortune one Saturday afternoon. Having just retired from her job as a preschool director, Muriel was gardening in her backyard.
A friend stopped by and said, “I don’t know if you’re looking, but I have just the job for you.”
He was the president of the local board of the American Cancer Society. Muriel went for an interview the next day, and was offered the job: Executive Director of the American Cancer Society in Chenango County, New York.
A Saturday in the garden turned into a 20-year career. I asked Muriel if she had been confident moving from a preschool director to the executive director of the ACS.
Muriel said she accepted the challenge enthusiastically and invoked the power of networking. She knew a lot of people in the community from working in the preschool, volunteering and church. Her husband, Dave, was a high school teacher and coach.
In the age before social media and LinkedIn, Muriel said, “I knew people I could ask. And I knew people I could ask to ask.”
Now nearly 20 years into retirement, Muriel tries to get between 150 and 200 minutes of formal exercise each week, and plays tennis two days a week. She tends her vegetable and flower gardens one to two hours a day in the summer, plus the spring preparations and fall clean-up.
Muriel still volunteers a bit with the AARP, but only so much as it doesn’t encroach on her time with her mother. Muriel’s mother, Maddy, is 101 years old.
Muriel with her mother Maddy
Born in 1914, Maddy was a hard worker who always liked to have fun. She read a lot, and took night classes to become a secretary. She didn’t have the benefit of an education, but was always self-taught.
Like daughter, like mother, Maddy is no shrinking violet. Muriel describes her mother as a feisty, determined, happy spirit.
“I think all of those things played into her longevity.”
It likely wasn’t diet and exercise.
“I can remember her at breakfast eating fried cakes and coffee, and thinking ‘Oh, my goodness,’” Muriel shared. “She walked to the bank and the store, but her longevity isn’t because she lived a healthy lifestyle.”
Maddy was engaged in life and activities, reading and sewing. She was the grandmother who got down on the floor to play with her grandchildren — grandchildren who, not coincidentally, still visit her at least once a week.
Maddy has been in care for three years. Placing her there was a difficult decision for Muriel, propelled by worries about Maddy’s safety.
Maddy was still lucid a majority of time, but didn’t recognize her own vulnerabilities. She'd fallen and broken her hip when she was 90 years old. Maddy still felt capable beyond her actual abilities.
“In her mind she could still do the things she always thought she could do.” Maddy didn’t think she needed to be there, Muriel said. “No one wants to be in a nursing home.”
The first year, Muriel visited Maddy every day, sometimes twice a day. It was a difficult transition. About six or eight months into it, Muriel says Maddy seemed to accept being in care, if not long term, at least a day at a time. Maddy is still surrounded by family, probably receiving more visitors than anyone else.
But Maddy was always magnetic and warm, always connected with family.
Muriel celebrates with husband Dave and her mother Maddy
“When I was young,” Muriel recalled, “my girlfriends loved coming to my house because they could talk to my mother. She would drop whatever she was doing to talk to my friends.”
Either Muriel or her sister visit Maddy every morning for about three hours, helping her with her creams and makeup and making sure she eats lunch.
The sisters are fortunate to be able to hire an aide hired outside the nursing home from Care.com, to supplement a staff stretched thin. The aide is with Maddy every day from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Muriel declines invitations and opportunities that take her out of town too often, or that eat up too much of her time.
“My first priority is to be there for my mother at the nursing home.”
Maddy isn’t interested inTV, but in the planned activities and visitors. Although confined in a wheelchair, she stays active wheeling herself through the halls and staying connected with the staff and other residents.
“My mother always had a lot of interests. I think that matters a lot.”
When Muriel’s husband, Dave, or her son or another male friend visits, Maddy lights up.
“She always had an eye for men,” said Muriel. “Last week we were sitting together in the dining room, and she was observing everybody and she commented, ‘There aren’t many men in here.’”
Returning to Muriel, I asked her which period in her long life of work, service, motherhood and care-taking she considered her best.
“All my years have been good years,” she said. “I really haven’t had bad years.”
But she remembers mid-life as a nice particularly nice time, when the kids were starting their own lives and she was embarking on a new career with the American Cancer Society.
“When you’re in your mid-forties and everything is clicking along real good, you have a career and you’re free to enjoy it, and not trying to balance career and family, you’re much more relaxed with it. You feel a greater confidence.”
I asked Muriel how she would describe her perfect day. Christmas morning, 2014, immediately came to mind. Her grandchildren had asked that they break tradition and open presents at Muriel and Dave’s house.“The kids were there by 7 a.m., which they thought was late,” Muriel laughed. “Everyone exchanged gifts, and went home around 11. They were back by 2:30, we played games, had dinner, a lot of laughter. And then close friends came over later.”