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Walter M. Bortz II, M.D. Headshot

Dare to Be 100 Book Review: Two Old Women

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As a little fellow a long time ago, I recall insisting on the reading of The Little Engine that Thought it Could every night before bedtime. The message "I think I can, I think I can" somehow imprinted itself into my brain as a tool in my subsequent approach to life.

Now 80 years later, I similarly embrace the lesson that is contained in a little book, by Velma Wallis, who is an Athabascan Indian. Originally written twenty years ago, the legend recounts the story of her tribe that inhabits the deep north of the Alaskan shelf where temperatures reach 50° below zero and the sun is totally absent in the winter months. It concerns the story of her tribe suffering at the end of a brutal season. Their collective survival was threatened by starvation.

One night the tribal elders decided that it was necessary to move on the next day, but that the two grandmothers were to be left behind because of their burden on all.

The accounting of the leavetaking is poignantly powerful. As the grandmothers watched the family slip out into the blizzard they huddled around the only memento they had which was an ember that they carefully nurtured. Despair prevailed.

But the next day they found a squirrel that had been snared. The next day they killed a rabbit with a slingshot. This boosted their spirits and strength. They endured a couple more days until one recalled at the edge of her memory that there may be a widening of the creek around the bend of the valley where there may fish.

Off they trudged with slim hope, but sure enough the fragment of memory was confirmed, and fish were there as a salvation. They secured the site and within a few days regained their strength and optimism.

Meanwhile the tribe had wandered fruitlessly on, laden by collective guilt. They sent one member back to bury the grandmothers only to find them gone. Following their trail however the scout came upon the two old women who rejoiced in the reunion. The tribe was summoned to the fishing hole.

Redemption!

This story, lovingly told, speaks to me today as the Little Engine did 80 years ago. The lesson that it conveys is different from the first, but nonetheless yields a beacon for future life.

The take-home message: Stay necessary!

I recommend this little book unreservedly to everyone.