HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Opinion: Centenarian’s wisdom makes sense of COVID-19 world

I’m speaking unnaturally loud, nearly shouting into the phone so Aunt Iona will hear me clearly on her end of the line. Having turned 107 this year, her hearing and eyesight are fading, but her math-teacher’s mind is about as sharp as ever: during our last visit, she shared a memory of being scolded for dancing around the formal parlor as a rambunctious 4-year-old in 1917 (a 103-year old recollection).

In an age of physical distancing, we’re relying more on the phone for connection with loved ones. We call to find encouragement, process the news, or relish a bit of levity within strange days. I call Aunt Iona in hopes that her many years of wisdom will affect me more deeply than the never-ending news feed on my screen- and that it will help recalibrate my perspective. Born just months after the Titanic sank, Iona has lived through two World Wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War. She’s also seen the invention of long-distance telephone service, the adoption of our national anthem, women’s suffrage, and the beginning of air travel. She is well-acquainted with the paradox of this joyful, sorrowful life. So what’s her take on COVID-19?

Believe that goodness can grow from terrible things

A few times now, Iona has reminded me that the lifestyle changes I’m making to help contain COVID-19 pale in comparison to the impacts of World War II on daily life. “Everybody was going to war … there was a lot of loss. People were having to do things they never thought they’d do … like me becoming a football coach!” (Yes, Iona coached the high school football team in Demopolis, Alabama in a bid to restore a bit of normalcy to her students’ lives.)

“I don’t know why this [pandemic] is happening, but I think good can come out of it.”

There’s something to learn every day

While I long for the dinner parties and reunions that feel so distant at times, Iona reminded me to live here and now: “Learn from people. I learned every day. A lot of people don’t learn from others, they think of what they can get out of others.” Right now, through Zoom rooms and livestreams, we can still participate in conversation, consider different perspectives, let them shape us. We can enjoy a display of talent or share our own, and simply learn. As another wise woman, Mary Oliver, wrote in her instructions for living a life, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Treasure your family — and broaden your own definition of “family”

Iona never had children, and her husband died decades ago: “John is gone, but he left me some things to live on - and one is memory. You can live on memory many a day, many a night.”

When I asked her what she’s treasured most in her life, she exclaimed, “Oh gracious! I think of all the fun I’ve had with my nieces and nephews. They about saved my life! Sometimes I get impatient and I don’t show my love … but God was so good when he created family.” She told me that I might not believe her, but many days she lets her mind trace the limbs of our family tree, holding each of us in her mind, one by one.

“In 107 years, I learned that it can be easy to love the people close to me, in my circle, but now I pray that the diameter of that circle is wider and wider … we’re all human beings, we’re the same in a lot of ways, and we all need love.”

Katherine Williams, MPH, MSW, is an Atlanta native, recently returned from several years working in public health in East Africa and Washington, D.C. Williams is an avid runner, outdoor enthusiast, and “experimental” amateur cook.

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