How She Spent the Past Century
My dad's first cousin Elinor Miller passed away late on Friday. It's sad that she's gone, but boy howdy did she live a terrific and LONG life. How long? She was 102. When I was last in Chicago a few months ago, I visited with her, and she was sparkly, sharp (not always great on short-term memory, but focused, and impressive with the details of all her stories and interests) and in good health, still living in her home of over 60 years. Wonderfully, she didn't have a long descent of ill heath over years or even months -- or weeks, for that matter, but took sick only a few days earlier, and went downhill very quickly. She'd been in the hospital, but wanted to go home, which she did, where she passed away. As I said, it's sad that she isn't here, after being here for SO long, but it's impossible to look at her life and not be overjoyed by its century and decency.
By the way, as readers of the pages well-know, I yammer a lot about the beloved Northwestern University, and also note its graduates from time to time. I'll add Elinor to the list. For the record, that was back in 1938 -- with a degree in biology.
Back on November 28, 2015, I wrote an article here about attending her 100th birthday. Rather than add anything new, I figure it best to just revisit that wonderful day.
How I Spent Yesterday
I had quite a nice day on Saturday, not the kind of day I've had much of a chance to have too often -- but then, it wasn't the kind of day most people have a chance to have. Ever. I went to to the 100th birthday party for my dad's cousin (my second cousin), Elinor Miller.
Elinor is just a gem of a person. She steps a bit slower than before, but is still sharp, curious, fun, loving and a joy. She even still lives at home, with a caregiver.
Her birthday was actually on Thursday, which was Thanksgiving. As she put it, "I love that the entire country celebrated my birthday." As so they should. The party was a charming, affectionate affair largely put together by her daughter Janice. (My favorite comment was when Janice noted that whenever her mother was at some place that required giving her birthday, she always phrased it as "11/26/15." Never mind that the "15" in question was a century ago.
By all rights, Elinor almost shouldn't have made it. I don't mean to 100, I mean to five. During the the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, between 20-50 million people died worldwide. Her son told about how Elinor had gotten sick with the virus when she was four years old, but she made it through. It took more than a pandemic to stop her.
Probably the most fun speech came when Elinor's granddaughter Kara spoke with a microphone in one hand and juggling her brand new baby -- and a written-out speech in the other. Being a doctor, she's adept at such things, like calming bewildered babies, though she raced through her speech so hilariously fast, to make it through before any crying started that someone had to finally shout out in hopes of understanding more than every third word, "Slow down, Kara!!!" At a somewhat more normal pace (somewhat...), she almost did make it through, though eventually had to hand off Elinor's great-grandchild to her husband.
For all the fun of the day, it's odd to say that the hit of the afternoon may have been the birthday cake. Really. That's because the frosting had embedded in it an edible photograph of Elinor when she was five years old. For those of you without your pocket calculator, that was 1920.
Okay, sorry, but I have to include one other cake picture. This isn't really at all what it seems to be. There are only about 10 candles actually on the cake, not 100, but because of the way the flash worked out, this comes across sort of how most people probably think a birthday cake for someone who is 100-years-old looks like, with the fire department on alert.
My dad adores Elinor, and always has. "Always" generally is a shorter period of time that most people give it meaning. But when the two people in question are 100 and 94 years old, "always" comes pretty close. They don't talk on the phone as regularly as before, but still do talk, and occasionally get together. Unfortunately, he's in the hospital at the moment (happily doing better and might even be released today) and couldn't make the party. (As Elinor put it, "I completely understand. I know about being old.") But he and Elinor have plans to get together very soon and have their own private celebration.
A few Elisberg relatives were there, my Aunt Joan and Dick, and my cousin Susie, among the 100 or so guests, but I was most-pleased that Marion Simon could make it. Another first-cousin of my dad, Marion is 97. I suspect it was a treat for her to be at a gathering where compared to the guest of honor she's just considered a kid. Marion is sort of a doyenne of the Chicago arts scene, and even wrote an autobiography about it all, The Show Must Go On.
Here she is with some guy who likes writing about such things.
It will not likely surprise you that the elves back home were very jealous, since they had to stick around taking care of the homestead and missed out on the gala. It sort of served them right for being so generally-snarky, though I'm sure they would have loved it. Even if they didn't know Elinor. After all, to meet her is to love her.
One final note, somewhat unrelated to the occasion, but of popular culture interest. The somewhat-related part is that where Elinor lives in Winnetka, a north suburb of Chicago, she's surrounded by a tight-knit group of people who just love her, and watch over her, and who raised their kids with her, quite a few of who were at the party and made lovely speeches, including of the kids. They tend to be known as The Ladies of Lincoln, which makes perfect generic sense, but it's really a unique, very adoring group.
The unrelated popular culture part is that this below is a photo of one of "The Ladies" who made a speech. You'll excuse me, but I'll keep her name private, for a reason that will be clear.
Several years ago, Hollywood came to town a film a movie that used the house of this particular Lady. Generally, such things are only seen in an occasional exterior shot, but for this movie the house actually played quite an important part. In some ways, the central part. Elinor always told about walking a few doors down the street to watch the filming, but thinking nothing much of it (for all I know, her own house even might be seen in wide shots). Over the years since, though, she's gotten quite a bit of amusement looking out her window to watch tourists track down the location, drive to the neighborhood, and camp out to take photographs. (Hence me doing what I can to keep it somewhat private.) The movie was a nice, little comedy called Home Alone.
In a bit of ethereal whimsy, last night after the party, it turned out that the AMC channel showed -- yes, Home Alone. I like to think it was intentional and an homage to Elinor.
She deserved it. And hey, the entire country celebrated her birthday on Thanksgiving, so why not?!
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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