Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Positivity ~

Helen Hadley’s life-saving decision to pull herself out of a deep depression and live a positively focused life has stayed with her for more than 75 years. She celebrated her 100th birthday last summer. Every day you can find her fervently playing the piano in the dining room of the nursing home where she lives. Some listeners act as though they don’t hear while others seem enlivened and inspired. As Helen strolls through the halls, her joy is contagious, and others smile at the sight of her. She shares her library books, encourages other residents to come out of their rooms for social events, writes to her many beloved friends, teases her boyfriend and eagerly accompanies friends on outings whenever anyone comes to pick her up. With a twinkle in her eye, she shares her motto for living: “Be positive, you just never know how long you may live, and it’s a whole lot more fun if you can be positive.”

Chapter 2: Generosity

After her 94th birthday, Esther Everett moved off her farm to a house near downtown, just in case the DMV failed to renew her driver’s license. The home she purchased in town had been abandoned and neglected for years―frequented only by feral cats that used it as a giant litter box. She served as the general contractor and turned an old dump it into an informal, yet lovely, bed and breakfast for visiting relatives. She even installed an apartment upstairs in case she needed in-home care later in her life.

She never told me about the several serious illnesses she’d had after the age of 90, she was just so present to each moment that she courageously fought, put the illness behind her and moved on. She spoke quietly, but her words were packed with candor and clearly articulated counsel, whether you wanted to hear it or not.

She made her own ice cream and her own moonshine. I went to visit her just days before she died. She served me homemade hot fudge sauce and ice cream she hand-churned in a one-pint freezer.

“Life happens for you, not to you.” Esther instructed me from her chair at the kitchen table. “It’s a privilege to give back.”

Chapter 3: Gratitude

Eighty-nine year-old Esther Thompson’s fire engine red Mustang convertible has enough horsepower to outrun a police car.

“I was devastated when my husband died 25 years ago, but I stopped, gave thanks for 45 delightful years with that wonderful man and consoled myself by buying my first red convertible. I’ve been driving a convertible ever since,” Esther asserted. “I don’t wish someone was here to do things for me, I am just grateful I can do them myself.”

Esther believes true happiness comes from work. “I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t work,” smiles Esther as she scurries around making sure all her chores are complete at home before she leaves to play with her friends at the coffee club, bridge club or the 500-card club that she initiated. As she backs out the door, she uses a rake to remove all the footprints from her carpet, so it is perfect upon her return. Each day, Esther works outside in her lavish flower gardens. Her neighbors are the grateful recipients of the beautiful views her gardens provide.

She’s unconcerned with the opinions of others but is adamant that she look her best every morning. “I’ve kept my nails polished for 75 years, and every morning, the first thing I do is fix my hair and put on my makeup,” Esther boasted.

Looking back, Esther has no regrets. “We survived some really hard times, growing up without enough food to eat and sometimes not enough money to keep the lights on. I don’t wish I had more money growing up or while raising my children. I’m just grateful for life as it is!”

Chapter 4: Fearlessness

Some say Warren Mount is too stubborn to die. Others believe his wellbeing and good health is a moment-by-moment subconscious choice. Standing at about 5’4”, he easily and courageously grabs a hold of a 2,000-pound black draft horse that stands about seven feet high. His convivial nature attracts an abundance of connections to people and places all over the Midwest and beyond. Warren has masterfully facilitated the sale or trade of approximately 4,000 horses of all types and sizes and a plethora of equine paraphernalia. He is still known as the region’s horse expert, running his business out of the humble home that he and his wife have rented for nearly 60 years.

No one would dispute that Warren Mount was the liveliest person at his 95th birthday party and more animated than his smallest great grandchildren. He is so energetic, people half his age are challenged to match his stamina. His stature is small; his smile wide. His courage is bravura, his giddiness contagious. When asked if he fears anything at all, he winks, “Just her” and offers a sly grin towards Nina, the woman who has been his wife for 75 years.

Chapter 5:  Joy

I led Koko and seven other women on a hike in the woods. When it began to rain, I realized that we were lost. Despite my calm exterior, my insides were jumping and twisting in a panic, as I struggled to figure out how to get these ladies back safely. The only way was to retrace our steps, back up the muddy, slippery path littered with fallen branches. Koko, at 92, was the inspiration that got us all safely back to camp.

Back in Des Moines, I enter Koko’s home, a converted streetcar station where she has lived for 25 years. Admiring the beautiful artifacts and Japanese antiques, I feel like I just stepped into a Japanese pagoda.

On a cold winter morning, she puts on her yak tracks, takes her hair dryer out to the carport and warms up the starter on her snow blower, so she can clear her long, steep driveway. “If I want to stay here I must take care of my home myself. When I do something that seems impossible I pat myself on the back and reward myself with a hot toddy of eggnog and brandy.”

Koko’s circle of friends spans three generations. She wines and dines them, treating them like royalty and refuses all offers of help. “You must leave the dishes for Sellise, my French maid.” Her friends smile helplessly. Everyone knows ‘Sellise’ is Koko’s imaginary housekeeper but they get the point, and she gets her way.

Chapter 6:  Love of Nature

Ward Mally slowly and deliberately emerges from his cottage in the woods each day to take the 10-mile drive into town for a cup of coffee and to commune with other humans. At 93, he lives by himself completely surrounded by wildlife, flora and fauna. His mile-long driveway is lined with birdhouses he constructed for his bluebird neighbors.

Working in partnership with Mother Nature, he protects the bluebird eggs from snakes and helps the birds transplant the nearly extinct bittersweet shrub. His passion is drafting trees to produce unique nuts. He will stop for hours on his way home from town to watch the wild turkeys peck across the fields or observe birds as they gather food for their young.

He giggles when I call him a nutty birdman. His flexibility of mind and body and gentle spirit reveal themselves when I hear him telling his own story. When I slow down and listen intently to his quiet voice, I feel my own connection to the natural world.

Chapter 7: Service

Every week Maxine Morrison, 89, drives herself to visit Kevin, a special needs friend she has read to for more than 14 years. She also drives about 30 miles each week to care for Alzheimer’s patients and to attend the “lifelong learning” adult education classes designed for seniors at the University of Northern Iowa. Her legacy is a life-long commitment to community service. Her compassion for others is expressed through her service. Her commitment to playful interaction with others and community spirit is ongoing. Dedicating over 50 years to volunteerism, Maxine never will give up learning, sharing and playing.  Years of giving have enabled her to thrive.  She misses her husband but fills the void with service to others and began learning the computer world.

Chapter 8: Courage & Conviction

Courageous, gracious and outrageous, Marian Solomon fearlessly questions what many others accept. She has chosen a life that many admire but few have the courage to carry out.

As a young woman, she took off alone for India to go on a two-year mission just two days after her wedding.

At age 70, she stood holding a banner for peace in the midst of Israeli soldiers who were violently attempting to intimidate some local landowners by destroying their 200-year-old olive trees. As a young mother, she worked tirelessly for equal education reform in Chicago to help the nearly all-black school her son attended (he was the only white student). She registered black voters in the South at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and worked tirelessly for social reform in North Carolina. Marion’s activism jeopardized her husband’s career, forcing them to move on more than one occasion, but her family stood by her. Even her son marched along side her for civil rights when he was just seven years old and was upset when he couldn’t go to jail with her.

Her commitment and work for peace and social justice continues to this day, as she uses her connections to urge President Obama to implement immigration rights and helps organize candlelight vigils for peace. Her car is plastered with bumper stickers reminding us that all our global neighbors deserve to be treated with the dignity of being human.

Chapter 9: Balance

Eunice and Wayne Zeigler are in a life-long love affair that has lasted nearly 70 years. Although the courtship began at a time when marriage often overshadowed a woman’s individuality, Eunice has managed to balance her two roles of devoted wife and being her own woman. Strong to the core, she has maintained her genuineness in the face of countless external forces and managed to keep alive the spark that has her adoring husband of 64 years just as smitten as he was when they first met. (See sample chapter).

Chapter 10: Abundance

Since playing daily in the Marine Corp Band in 1944, Ted Fredenhagen, fostered a dream to play trumpet in a Big Band-style band as a civilian. After leaving the service, his new bride insisted on a more ‘realistic’ career, so he became a football star in college then followed his parents into the family ice cream business. Ted’s trumpet lay dormant for more than 25 years before he picked it up to play at a high school class reunion party in 1985. The applause that night rekindled his dream. Several years later, he located 18 of the best musicians in a 100-mile radius of his hometown and boldly convinced them to play with him. He named the band ‘Class Act.’ After 40 years of believing, he manifested his Big Band dream. Ted, age 86, is in charge of arranging the music and scheduling paid bookings in the Chicago area and continues to play with the pros.

“People are fun, they make fun” Ted says, “I’ve always got something going with somebody. Even today, we host a huge bash at our country home that is attended by several hundred music lovers. I believe the way to stay young is to be needed for something.”

Chapter 11: Unconditional Love

Gail Fitzhugh has lived 85 years on this Earth and holds no grudges. “I have no cause to forgive, because I never see ‘wrong’ in others.”

For nearly 80 years, he and his wife, Rachel worked side-by-side to help care for the less fortunate. As a couple, they raised two sons and a “family” of hundreds of previously homeless and displaced people who lived with them on their county-financed ‘poor farm.’

Single mothers, battered women, homeless men and the physical and mentally challenged all were welcome. They started out in Southern Iowa with a ‘family’ of 48 residents, many of whom could barely care for themselves. Gail lovingly shaved the scraggly hair off the faces of 20 of the men every Sunday before church. When they moved to Northern Iowa, their family grew to a household of 250. Utilizing contributions from the community wasn’t always enough, and Gail and Rachel relied heavily on their courage, intuition and common sense to figure out how to do whatever needed to be done to keep their home together. They lobbied hard for approval from the County Board of Supervisors to cover major expenses, but they attribute their success to their early realization that it is better to act and ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission and wait.

Chapter 12: Acceptance

Jo Barnes earned her Master’s in Divinity and Doctorate from Seminary while raising three children on a farm at a time when a woman minister was so rare it was generally unimaginable.

Jo describes her life as a boat drifting from shore to shore, exploring the magical mysteries along the way. She says, “Many people train you to get in a boat with a plan and pick a destination. However, too many people are so focused on the goal that they miss everything along the way. I have been asked, ‘what’s your goal?’ and I feel very comfortable with the fact that my life just happened.”

Jo has courageously ventured into uncharted waters, creating ways for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen. The ripple effect of her easy-going self-assurance continues to benefit countless lives, even as she transitions into a retirement community. She quickly laughs at herself and sets an excellent example for others to also be a peace with themselves.