01/28/2012 09:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Is Only the Beginning: Surprising Advice From a Centenarian


My great-aunt Ida loves to say, "This is only the beginning." Gearing up for her 101st birthday this May, Ida thrives on a daily Coca-Cola, full-bellied laughter, and an abundance of nourishing memories. Ida is remarkable not only for how long she's lived, but also for how she's lived: always open to the call to adventure.

Ida was born during the Taft administration, but she's hip to the times. She lives independently in an apartment complex which mostly houses college students. She's on top of current events and her celebrity crush is Stephen Colbert. But Ida's epic small talk is what sets her apart. She'll casually share: "During Prohibition, when my father had me smuggling whiskey across the border," or, "Those years we were panning for gold near Yosemite..." or, "When I was in Timbuktu..."

No seriously. She's been to Timbuktu. "But enough about me," she'll say. "You're the one out in the world. Tell me something exciting going on in your life." Um. I went to Costco and found a parking space near the front. Our frequent visits always inspire me to see more, do more, love more, laugh more and experience more.

Here is some of the unconventional wisdom Ida likes to impart: "Being comfortable isn't worth losing out on an experience."

As a newlywed during the Great Depression, Ida realized that living well doesn't have to mean living with money. Throughout their lives, she and her husband Joe would invest the little money they saved into making memories. On a whim, they'd borrow an automobile, fill up the tank with gas, and drive out to the desert for the weekend. They'd sleep in the car or under the stars.

"Don't be afraid to do what you want to do. That's what it boils right down to. You want to go through life saying: I can't do this? I can't do that? ... And, for goodness sakes, don't wait around for a pat on the back."

In the early 1970s, when Ida's contemporaries were settling into quiet retirement, she and Joe sold what they owned, bought a camper, and struck out for Europe and Northern Africa. Friends and family bet they'd be back in three months. They lived in that van overseas for three years. They came home with an international Rolodex of new close friends and a Half-moon parrot they named Pedro Nunu.

"Don't let your husband know you're boss."

Ida lights up when she remembers her husband of 60 years. They were a team. "My friends always said I spoiled Joe. But I don't think I did. He spoiled me. And besides, our marriage is the one that lasted 60 years." She doted on him by tucking love notes into his work pants and cooking his favorite meals. He'd give her free reign to travel alone to places like Kathmandu or the pyramids.

"You have to have a good sex life with your partner. It's very important. Sex is a wonderful game."

Umm. We'll just let that speak for itself. Though if you'd like to hear more, Ida is more than happy to share.

"This is only the beginning..."

This personal catchphrase is all about delivery. Ida says it in a slow, foreboding tone and then punctuates it with laughter. It expresses her unwavering optimism that even when life is at its cruelest, there's always something more on the horizon. She's had her share of heartbreak. They lost their first child days after birth. Soon afterward, Joe was injured in a work accident, which didn't hinder their love life but meant that if they wanted children, they'd have to adopt. They cherished an adopted baby boy for four months until the biological mother changed her mind and wanted the child back. Nearly 70 years have passed, and yet, when Ida recalls holding the baby one last time, she weeps.

But for Ida and Joe, that was only the beginning. They became second parents to many, finding joy in helping out with their friends' children. They volunteered at their local elementary school. And they were always game for taking care of their siblings' children and grandchildren. When they were nearly 80 years old, they drove across the country eager at the chance to take care of me. Ida has a hard time distinguishing my features now. Her eyesight has greatly diminished. But in her mind's eye, she still sees me as a toddler polka dancing with her Joe.

When our visits come to an end, Ida always asks for her cane. "Give me my cudgel!" she playfully demands. (She uses it more as a prop than as a mobility aid.) Every time, she rises and opens her arms for a long, warm hug. She gently rests her head on my neck, and we cry. She's nearing the end of this journey, and I'm presumably still near the beginning. There's so much more for her to share and me to learn. And we love each other so much.

As I headed out last weekend, she added: "Go for a walk. Make love to your husband. And don't obsess about health... That's not healthy."

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