Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TOP STORY >> A good, long life for centenarian

Leader staff writer

Opal Burns of Beebe was born before the First World War and worked in an ordnance plant in Jacksonville during the Second World War.

The house where she was born in Lonoke County’s Wattensaw community was lit with kerosene lamps, and when telephone service finally came to her area, she was the operator who connected her neighbors to a doctor who made house calls in the middle of the night to deliver babies.

Opal, as she prefers to be called, retired from a Lonoke nursing home where she had worked for many years and moved to Beebe 28 years ago to be near her only child, Bobby.

He needed help chauffeuring his children to their various activities and she was beginning to have a few aches and pains which she believed were the first signs of old age.

Reflecting on her life one week before her hundredth birthday on Friday, she laughed about the years that had passed since that time.

“I don’t know why I’m still here at 100,” she said. “I’ve asked the Lord why I’ve lived this long, but He still hasn’t told me.”

On June 23, she found a birthday card from President Obama and his wife in her mailbox. Wikipedia says it’s tradition for the president to send best wishes to centenarians.

Opal doesn’t Google, so she didn’t know about the tradition, but she was clearly as much amused as flattered by the acknowledgement.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the U.S. has the greatest number of centenarians in the world, an estimated 70,490 on Sept. 1, 2010.

The great number is partly the result of a large population 100 years ago, the nation’s large farm population and an emphasis on long-term care, the encyclopedia says.

Opal doesn’t have a computer, so she has never Googled and come across Wikipedia. But she does know what Facebook is and she knows about texting and she’s not a fan of either one.

About texting she said, “I want to hear them talk.” And as for Facebook, “Everybody knows your business but it excludes people like me.”

Opal is also not a fan of the offerings these days on cable TV that seem designed to break down the barriers of decency that were the standards she grew up with.

“There’s too much evil in it,” she said.

She used to watch ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and the news. Now she mostly watches the news. When the news is off, she reads a tattered, big-print Bible that belonged to her mother and goes to bed, her own bed in the home she shared with Emmett, her husband of 63 years.

But Opal’s proclaimed distaste for technological advances and changes in entertainment standards should not be taken as an indicator of her zest for life.

As a teenager, she attended dances at the homes of neighbors who were willing to take down the beds in their living rooms to make more space available.

She even participated in a new style of dancing, round dancing, in which the partners held each other a little too close for parental approval.

She was in her early 70s when she accepted a cousin’s invitation to ride behind him for more than 10 miles on his motorcycle. She was in her late 80s when she flew to California. Until she was 90, she was the cook who made chicken and dressing and banana pudding for the family on Sunday.

And though she still misses the wood cook stove that she left behind when she moved from the farm to Beebe, that doesn’t mean she abhors all things modern. She grew up with an outhouse and she says, “I’m proud of my commode.”

Emmett lived in the Bethlehem Community while she lived in nearby Oakdale, so they always knew one another.

She found him pleasant enough, but he was “just one of those Burns boys” until he came home on furlough during the Second World War.

She went with a friend to visit him and they spent the evening talking. Since she worked at an ordnance plant, they had the war in common, she said.

Eight months after the war ended, they got married. He was 32 and she was 35 and to their friends and family they were no longer the bachelor and old maid.

By today’s standards, Opal’s life was full of hardships. As a child, she walked miles to school. The barn on the dairy farm that she and her husband worked together before Bobby graduated from high school in 1965 had electricity long before the house did. And in 1952, the tornado that destroyed Judsonia also leveled her home.

Asked what she would have changed, she said, “Not a thing.”

In her long life, she has had friends who were as close as family; family that made a point of staying close, and a husband who was the friend she could talk to about anything.

A widow for almost two years, she has adapted to living alone with the help of friends, family and neighbors who help her with the few things she can no longer do for herself.

For example, no one else could possibly buy her groceries because she doesn’t even know what she wants until she sees it on the shelf. But someone does have to drive her to the store. And there are times when her joints don’t feel like she can make it to the mailbox by the road, so her neighbor brings the mail to her.

She still cooks a big breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast, juice and coffee.

Nights get lonely sometimes. But she says she knows death comes to everyone. When it’s her time, she said she wants to die in her sleep with family beside her.