Friday, October 7, 2016

Aunt Bea

For some reason that's beyond me, longevity seems to run in my family.

Grandpa Paul Wehrle lived to be 91 years old, and his wife, Charlotte, knocked out 98 years. Grandpa, a gentle soul, was hobbled by a stroke in his final decade, which ultimately changed his personality, but Charlotte was a pistol pretty much to the day she died. We were kind of pulling for her to make it to 100, but I think she just wore out in the end.

It amazed me, when I thought about it, that Charlotte was born four months after the Wright brothers first took to the air, and lived to see men walk on the moon.

On my mother's side, Grandpa Harry Kessler lived to be 92 years old, while his wife, Grace, truly graced the planet for 83 years. Harry was a tool inventor for Bethlehem Steel while Grace was, either by avocation or compulsion, a baker extraordinaire.

My parents, unfortunately, somehow misplaced the longevity gene. Dad died when he was only 58 years old, felled by prostate cancer that eventually traveled to his bones. Mom made it to 63 before breast cancer claimed her.

Given the family history, I've not been able to figure out this particular genealogical anomaly. If their genomes hadn't faltered and followed bloodline history, Mom would be 88 now, and Dad would be 87. Mere youngsters in the family tree.

Bea Clewell about 10 years ago.
 But earlier this week, we were informed that Mom's oldest sister, Beatrice — my Aunt Bea — passed away on Tuesday at the age of 102 in Allentown, PA.

So we have a centurion in the family after all.

We were told that Bea decided to donate her body to science, which I think is pretty remarkable. Maybe they'll locate that longevity gene somewhere and clone it for the rest of us. Who knows?

At any rate, Bea was a Kessler through and through. Whenever my wife, Kim, and I traveled north, we'd make a stop to visit her, first in her home in Emmaus, and in later years, at her assisted living condo in Allentown.

Bea was always sharp and gracious, and we spent most of our time simply catching up, trying to pin down where the remainder of our scattered family was and how each of us was doing.

She always had coffee and a homemade snack (like cherry pie) waiting on us. She inherited her mother's bakery skills (as did her sister), which made us feel incredibly comfortable. It also made me feel incredibly connected, somehow, to Mom.

I'm trying to put Bea's longevity into perspective. She was born in 1914 — 10 years after Charlotte — but in the very year that World War I began. I guess it says something that she avoided the great flu pandemic that ravaged the world four years later, the state of medicine being what it was back then. Lucky for her. Lucky for us.

Bea's husband, Ed, was 18 years older than she. I didn't know it when Ed was alive (he died in 1985 at the age of 89. Apparently, you also can marry into longevity), but his father, William, fought in the Civil War. He's my great uncle. William served with the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, 11th Corps, and saw action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before he mustered out.

 What I didn't know until today was that Ed served in the U.S. Navy during World War I as a Fireman, third class. Just like that, now I have more research to pursue: What ship did he serve? Did he see action? What was his battle station?

Bea knew of my interest in history and several years ago gave me some of Ed's books about the Civil War, including a worm-eaten 1863 regimental of the 153rd Pennsylvania which lists the Clewells as "Clowells." Oh, well.

When Ed died in 1985, Bea was 71 years old. She spent the next 31 years — think about that for a moment — as a fiercely independent and capable woman devoted to her three daughters (who are still living). She met life head on and on her own terms. Simply remarkable.

I'm not sure what all this longevity means for me, or even if it applies. I'm about four months shy of my 66th birthday and take meds to regulate my A-fib. On the one hand, it's nice to think I might still be writing blogs 30 years from now. On the other hand, that's a lot of taxes to still be paying.

What I do know is that another branch of the family tree is gone. And it's an empty feeling.

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