At age 101, Opal Paul can’t figure why anyone would make a fuss that she’s lived more than a century. The year Opal Paul was born, Albert Einstein presented his quantum theory of light, the Boy Scouts was founded, and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were reportedly killed in a gun battle in Bolivia. Opal was quite amused, however, when she bought a bottle of wine for her birthday and the computer at the Oaken Keg in Eagle River wouldn’t recognize 1908 as her birth date.
The first time I stopped for a visit, Opal wore a blue sweater that drew out the color of her saphire eyes. Her hands are steady, her voice strong, and she opens her door with a confident step. Opal lives independently in an apartment at the Chugiak Senior Center. Until four years ago she volunteered five days a week at Chugiak Elementary where everyone called her “Grandma Opal.”
She indulges people like me who want to visit with her about her past. But the truth is, she’d rather focus her energy on the present – on things like books, her current mileage walking the halls, and the computer class she started last week.
“I can’t possibly think of anything I wish was the same,” she said about the past. “I wouldn’t want any of it back.”
She was the seventh in a family of ten children. Her father homesteaded near Salem, Oregon and later farmed in the foothills of Mt. Rainier, Washington. The family eventually moved to Glenoma, Washington. Like many large families, the older children took care of the younger ones.
“My mother liked working with my dad better than being in the house with the kids,” Opal said. “We raised all our own food and food for the cattle. We were poor but didn’t know it since everyone else in our little valley was the same.”
She remembers some of the toughest years being those during World War I when the winters were harsh and food was scarce. Sometimes her family had to eat the feed they’d put up for the livestock. “If it was good enough for the cattle to eat, it was good enough for us.”
The family farm was three miles from the school and when the weather was bad, her father harnessed-up the horses and took the children to school by wagon. By the time Opal was nine, however, a school bus came around.
Opal waited on tables in a logging camp during the summers to pay for college which she attended in Seattle. Later she worked at a bakery and eventually retired from the bakery after 35 years. Opal came to Alaska twelve years ago to be with her only daughter, Sonya Gerber. Opal did some traveling in her retirement including a trip on the Alcan when she was 90. Today she enjoys her three granddaughters, two of whom live in Alaska, and many grandchildren.
“I’m very proud of all of them,” she said.
Over the course of 101 years, Opal lost two husbands, and two years ago, Sonya – her only child – died of cancer. About heartache, Opal said, “You just take it day to day. Then you discover that on Friday you feel so much better than you did on Monday, and you wonder why you felt so bad.” She doesn’t linger for long in the dark places so many of us seem to get stuck.
“You don’t go through life without hardship,” she explained. “But you shouldn’t let it make you morbid.”
I was struck by this woman’s optimism. How did she stay so upbeat? She thought a moment and then imparted a few pearls of wisdom:
“Stay busy. Have something to do all the time,” she said. Her life at the senior center begins at 6 a.m. every day. She participates in the senior center’s exercise classes, takes in movie nights, and recently signed up for a computer class. She now has an email account.
“Read,” she said. “People who don’t read are kind of lost.” A Bible and an encyclopedic dictionary sit on her end table. She likes fiction and biography and looks up the words she doesn’t know as she’s reading. She frequents the Eagle River library and the library at the senior center. Her only complaint is that there are too few large-print books available to satisfy her appetite for books.
“Make friends as you go along,” she said. As we visited, her friends Anne Craig and Nancy Sitz joined our conversation. Teachers, whose classroom she once volunteered in, also like to drop by. With a rich and full social calendar, I had the impression that she has more friends than she has hours in the day.
“Live healthy,” she said. She is trim and fit and spends part of each day staying that way. Along with taking all the exercise classes she can, she logs many miles walking briskly along the senior center halls.
Opal limits her television viewing but admits to loving the Judge Judy show. “Like Judge Judy says, ‘If you don’t lie, you don’t need a memory.’” Opal retires every day at 8 p.m. and listens to talk radio until she’s ready to fall asleep.
Opal doesn’t think that much about her recipe for longevity. She was tickled that on turning 100, she was invited to ride in the Chugiak 4th of July Parade. What she will tell you is that even after a century, life remains rich and full.
“Life is as interesting as you make it,” she said. “You can be bored with it or you can lap it up and love it.”
Seems to me, that’s advice worth taking into the next century.