I can’t even tell you how many times in the last few weeks, when extra discipline was needed to help me stick to my diet until Saturday rolled around, that I’ve drawn inspiration from a recent visit with Great Aunt Jokie.
As an 88-year-old diabetic, Jokie is eight years into the disease that likely contributed to her mother’s premature death decades ago. Technically, Lydia Maller Gerber died of a heart attack, but it’s probably no coincidence that she was in the hospital at the time due to complications from diabetes.
Jokie’s sister Sarah also had “sugar,” as they used to call it, though she, too, died of heart trouble. So Jokie, at an age when old ladies can wear purple and say what they think and eat what they like, turns down the pie served at both lunch and dinner at the assisted living facility. She’s given up potatoes and bread, though she does treat herself to ice cream once a week.
Now that’s discipline. But what is willpower, after all, but waiting through all the times you must say no until the time arrives when you can finally say “yes?” And Jokie, it turns out, is awfully good at waiting.
As a teenager, back in the early 1940s, she waited to see what would happen when the state changed its rules and said farmers’ kids couldn’t just keep repeating the eighth grade until they turned 16 and could legally quit. She was sent to Kirkland High School, the first in her family to venture beyond the one-room schoolhouse. But her dad didn’t think it would be right for her to graduate from high school, given that none of her 13 older brothers and sisters had done so. So she, too, quit school at 16 and stayed home to help on the farm.
In 1943, at age 17, Jokie developed a blood condition that was judged to be leukemia. So then she had to wait to see if she was going to get well.
The doctor ordered up regular injections of Vitamin B-12, a regimen she’s continued to this day. Eventually she did start feeling better. And the year after that, at 18, she received a marriage proposal from a local boy named Ed Schwartz. He was pretty familiar to her, given that he happened to have three siblings who had married Jokie’s brother and two sisters.
“But my folks said I was too young to get married,” she said. “They said I had to wait until I was 21.”
In the meantime, Ed’s mother wondered if his marrying Jokie was really such a good idea. “She told him, ‘She’s not well. You might end up having to take care of her,’” Jokie recalled. “But he said he’d take care of me if he had to. That’s what he wanted. And he waited for me all those years.”
This was not an era of instant gratification. But part of it was the insular Swiss Anabaptist culture they grew up in, too. Though their respective grandparents had emigrated to America from Switzerland well before the turn of the century, both Ed and Jokie grew up speaking Swiss at home, a tradition they carried on during their first few years of married life.
Ed’s gone now, as are the majority of Jokie’s brothers and sisters. Her oldest surviving sibling, Sylven, will turn 101 in December. “I’ve got a long way to go to catch up,” she notes.
Jokie’s wearing a boot because of foot pain possibly related to the diabetes. She recently had another mini-stroke, No. 24, according to her count. “But never paralyzed,” she says. “For that I’m so thankful.”
Jokie doesn’t feel sorry for herself. When my dad asks her, at the start of our visit, as he does every time he stops by to see one of his aged aunts or uncles, “Wie gehts?” – how’s it going? – she responds as she always does: “Simly gut,” along with a Swiss phrase neither one of us can spell but that she loosely translates as, “As good as you make it.”
It sounds awfully familiar. The Swiss precursor, perhaps, to Grandma Annie-Bananie’s traditional saying, “That’s just the way it is.”
It’s not a sentiment you hear much anymore in this era of instant gratification. I miss hearing it.