Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 26, 2009

"Well, that's it!"

How do you sum up - in just a few words - the life of a person who lived 99 years?

Husband Art and I were faced with that problem last weekend, when we struggled with what to include in his mother's obituary.

We knew the end was near when we received a call earlier in the week from Art's brother Tommy telling us Donna wasn't doing well. She had recovered remarkably well from a stroke she suffered in January, but we knew, at her age, that she was on borrowed time. So, on Friday, when Art's cell phone showed a call coming from Brewster Village in Appleton, Wisconsin, we knew it was probably the end.

And it was. "Well, that's it!" he declared, repeating the phrase Donna so often used when one phase of life was over and another was beginning.

And so we started reflecting on Donna's long, well-lived life.

She was passionate about many things. She loved to sing, startling her mother when, as a toddler, she remembered all the words and pitches of "Down by the Old Mill Stream." She graduated from high school in 1927, a year ahead of her class, and began studying at the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton. Possessing a powerful voice, she was offered a singing job in New York City, but her mother's illness required her to stay at home and care for her younger siblings. She especially enjoyed music from the 1930s and 1940s and Dixieland jazz.

Donna became an avid Green Bay Packers fan in the 1920s. She had season tickets from 1939 through 1992, when she decided watching the games on TV was less hassle. She and Tommy often spoke about the team for hours each day during the season. She attended the "Ice Bowl" in 1967. She enjoyed watching the progress of newcomer Jordy Nelson, a Riley County High School and Kansas State University stand-out.

She also enjoyed working daily crossword puzzles, playing cards, talking - whether with a close relative or a stranger she had just met - reading newspapers and eating strawberry shortcake and vanilla ice cream.

As she got older, although she enjoyed life, she frequently wondered aloud what good she was to anyone. We always told her she was our "entertainment" as she was frequently the life of the party at family gatherings due to her strong opinions about almost everything. Themes she often repeated were "These are the good old days" and "Do it while you can; don't wait too long."

In 1990, at the age of 80, Donna traveled with Art and me to Germany and Austria. The following year, we visited Mecklenburg in the former East Germany and Lower Silesia, now in Poland, to see her ancestors' villages. She declared those lands to look "just like Wisconsin," but wondered aloud, "What's wrong with these people that they don't give free refills on coffee?"

From 1993 to 2007, she spent two weeks every summer with us at our cottage in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. While there, she often remarked about how it reminded her of her days at her family's cottage when she was a girl.

In spite of the 12-hour distance between us, we saw Donna quite a bit. She stayed with us two weeks every fall and spring and we spent at least a week with her during every Christmas break.

Until her stroke in January, Donna lived independently in the home she and husband Tom purchased in 1945 and completely renovated. She and Tom enjoyed nearly 55 years of marriage before his death in 1986. As a Depression-era bride, she developed a frugal lifestyle, which continued throughout her life. If someone called her "tight," she considered it a badge of honor.

Whenever she faced a problem, Donna collected information, made a decision and stuck with it, never looking back. At 53, not liking how the smoke yellowed the cabinets in her kitchen, she gave up cigarettes without complaining and never understood why others couldn't do the same.

She was equally matter-of-fact about all of life, not dwelling on the inevitable losses. When faced with the death of a loved one, she'd be melancholy for a time and then abruptly mark the end of that period with, "Well, that's it!"

After her January stroke, she moved to Brewster Village. Told she would probably make a good recovery, her usual optimistic outlook and feisty nature took over and she looked forward to moving back into her home.

She was doing well when struck with a second affliction. After being told she would probably not recover, despite being seemingly strong, she died the next day, as if saying, "Well, that's it!"

But that isn't entirely accurate. The memories remain.

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