By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Let others grow old and wear purple. At age 102, Blanche Aldrich wore blue. Blue becomes her.
The live band played “Corrina, Corrina” and “The Tennessee Waltz.” People danced and drank wine and petted Lottie, a deaf Dalmatian therapy dog who understands sign language and put in an appearance. There was a birthday cake, of course, and cut flowers on every table, and potted tulips brought to Blanche from a fresh-faced girl.
The guest of honor milled about, making introductions amongst her friends of all ages from many places. The New Year’s birthday festivities weren’t tempered by the fact that Blanche had stayed up till midnight the night before and toasted in 2010. With champagne.
Hers is a blueprint for a life fully and well-lived. Blanche has kept an open mind, a generous heart and a maverick’s spirit. She went to Honduras with the Peace Corps at age 79, traveled annually to France throughout her 80s, renewed her driver’s license at 96 and moved herself from Mississippi to a Memphis senior-living facility a couple of years ago when she felt it was time to downsize. She still calls her own shots.
I met her in 1982 in the north Mississippi hamlet of Michigan City. My assignment was to write about her home, Washington Oaks, a one-room schoolhouse she had renovated with European appointments and flair. She also had taught in the schoolhouse long before, after marrying the descendent of an adventurer, Ransom Aldrich, who along with about 20 other Michigan natives came South and settled for a spell.
Most of the Michiganers eventually returned North. But Ransom and the town he started remained, along with a grist mill, a store, a few houses and an Episcopal church. It was to Michigan City that Blanche returned after being widowed and after teaching school at military bases in Europe for years.
In 1984 she started a Flag Day party, inviting former students to come celebrate the oft-forgotten day between two huge oaks she named Martha and George. Flag Day in Michigan City became a hot ticket.
One night a few years back, my phone rang late. Blanche was on the other end. She sometimes calls to discuss politics – we usually agree – or just to say hello.
“Do you have any interest in seeing the Panama Canal?” she asked that night, without much of a preamble.
“All my regular traveling companions are reluctant to go,” she explained. “They think I’m going to die on them.”
I should have cleared my calendar and gone. But I hemmed and hawed too long to suit Blanche.
There is luck involved, of course, in reaching age 102 with your wits, sense of humor and mobility intact. A lot of luck.
But surely a mind-set helps, too. Blanche Aldrich considers age irrelevant and education imperative. She sold the converted Michigan City schoolhouse to a grandson, but she gets back there quite often to check on her old domain.
At 102, she embraces life.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.