“I’m a little quirky. But at this age, I have a right to be quirky. It’s who I am. So you just have to put up with it.”
Sometimes, you meet someone who you just click with. That was the case when I sat with Miss Lee. This sweet, down to earth woman had wisdom to share not only with my generation, but with her own generation as well. She has embraced getting older, and I can tell you that throughout her life, as well as throughout our interview, there was never a dull moment:
Lee was born in Sparrows Point, MD in 1931. She was the sixth out of seven children, and shortly after she was born, her parents realized providing for six children during the depression could prove difficult.
They bought a farm in Carroll County for $1700 cash, and moved out into the country, where they had none of the modern facilities; no bathroom, no electricity.
“We were to raise our own food and never be hungry during the depression. I thought they were very brave to do that.”
Never having been farmers themselves, her parents did their best to take to the farming lifestyle.
“We were not really like everybody else around us. We were always not quite farmers, not quite city; we were who we were.”
With her father staying near Baltimore to work on the steel mills during the week, her mother was left to do much of the farming with her grandfather.
“We made hay, we shucked wheat, we cut corn. I loaded hay, and we made our own butter. We had huge gardens. I liked the seeding and the weeding best, never liked the picking much.”
Her mother became an example of strength and creativity for Lee, handling seven kids all week long, and solving any problem that came her way.
“If we needed something to eat, my mom would go out and shoot something.”
Her father would come home on the weekends, often bringing people from the city with him. At that time, visiting the countryside was entertainment for the city folk, and her mother would serve chicken as a treat for their weekend guests.
“If we had chicken during the week, then Mr. Carbaugh had run over it. Mr Carbaugh took his milk out the dirt road to the main highway. He would go like the wind. And mom would say ‘Watch out! There goes Mr. Carbaugh!’ So if he ran over one of our chickens, we would eat it that day.”
Lee remembered her childhood as a particularly happy one. Her younger brother and grandfather became her best friends, and with very little money, there was no shortage of opportunity to be creative.
“We had favorite places where we played. We had a section that we called our airplane. We lived by a little creek and we had our spaces there that were our special playgrounds. We had very few toys. We used various things. I had an ice scraper that we used for a truck, and we had somebody’s old compact that we called a Cadillac.”
The outside influences in Lee’s life were few as a young child. Home and church were all she knew, her parents raising their children in their own way. Her mother, having been raised by a very refined, Victorian woman, expected her children to behave with Victorian values.
“My grandmother wouldn’t even let us whistle. ‘A whistlin’ woman and a crowin’ hen will come to no good end’, or something like that.”
Eventually Lee was old enough to go to school, which she simply could not get enough of.
“I loved school. I remember the day I learned to read. I was in first grade and all of a sudden I said ‘Oh, I can read that!’ so they put me up in the next class.”
School quickly became an important influence in Lee’s life, eventually leading her to want to teach and educate others.
“My mother was a women’s libber even in those days. I think she was always disappointed that she never got to be a teacher. She was very pleased from the time that I was in second grade that I wanted to be a teacher. I thought it was the greatest job around. She wanted us all well educated.”
Her mother never let up on her dream for all of her children to be educated, particularly since she was never able to finish high school herself.
“The plan was that my eldest sister would go to school, and when she graduated and had a job she was supposed to help the next one. It didn’t really pan out, as you can imagine, but it was a good plan.”
Ultimately, Lee was given the opportunity to attend the teaching school at Towson, but not without a small bump in the road.
“I was expecting to go to Towson. I had to walk out the lane, catch a bus, go down to Baltimore. Then I had to catch the Number 8 out to Towson. I had to go for a physical. Her name was Dr. Buckley, I remember her well. I had never had a blood pressure taken… She found that I had a heart murmur and I was not acceptable. So when I left there, I thought I was going to die before I got home. I had to get back on that Number 8, back downtown, back to the bus station, back on the bus to the end of the road, walk down my mile and a tenth, to tell my mother that I was dying!”
Of course, Lee’s anxiety turned out to be for not. They found that her heart murmur had existed since birth. After spending a year attending business school in Baltimore, she was cleared to be accepted into Towson, where she not only achieved her dream of becoming a teacher, but also met her husband.
“I met him the first mixer that they had. They were putting us together in those little games. They were sayings. Mine was ‘In the eating’ and his was ‘The proof of the pudding.’ ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ And we were to match up. So I spent the ice breaker evening with him.”
They didn’t start dating right away, however. Lee had her share of male pursuers before finding that he was the one.
“They thought I was sexy.”
Eventually she and her future husband started dating, finding that they had a lot in common, from their backgrounds, to their core values. And he always treated her better than she thought she deserved.
“He really pursued, which, you know, is kind of good for the ego.”
They got engaged their junior year. Lee was afraid to tell her parents, not knowing how they might react to her being engaged and still having a year of school left.
When it was announced at the breakfast table, her mother left the table crying. Whether they were happy or sad tears, Lee never knew. While she loved Lee’s fiancé, her mother had never felt she could be who she really was in her marriage, and had concern for her daughters.
“My mom preached independence. ‘Be ready for a job. Be on your own if you can.’ She didn’t say ‘Don’t get married’, but I think she might have been worried for me.”
Shortly after they were married, Lee’s husband went into the service, and they were separated for about a year. During that time, he wrote her almost every day, and she kept each and every letter all these years.
“I just finished reading all of his letters, and burned them up. They weren’t for anybody but me, and it would be a betrayal to have other people read them. I had forgotten that he had written so many.”
Once out of the military, they settled in western Maryland, bought a farm, and had four children.
“He really only wanted three. When he found out I was pregnant again, he was upset over that, which surprised me to death. But if you’re the one that’s pregnant, you might as well say ‘Wow! Isn’t this great?!’ “
After many, love-filled years together, her husband became sick with Parkinson’s Disease. A turn in the road that Lee would have never foreseen.
“Before we knew he was sick, I was upset with him because he had gotten so quiet. I said ‘We’ve got years to be together. We need to do things’ but he was sick, and I didn’t know it. It was easier after I knew he was sick, because I thought ‘Oh, that explains it.’ “
She knew then that they were in for an uphill battle, and she remembered what her mother had taught her about always being able to take care of yourself and working with what you’re given.
“I thought, ‘I need to do something that’s going to keep me from being resentful that this is all I can do or that I’m tied down. I don’t want to feel bad that this is my situation.’ So I reconnected with my high school friends. I knew that I had outlets that were going to keep me ok to be his caregiver. And I very purposefully did that.”
Lee stuck by her husband’s side through all of the changes and struggles that the next ten years would bring. When he passed, Lee felt that everything she knew was gone.
“I really thought that it was ok for me to die then. I didn’t have anything to do. I didn’t have any responsibilities. I took care of him for ten years. I didn’t have that anymore. There I was, ‘Oh, here I am, almost 70 years old, what am I doing next?’ “
But God wasn’t done with Lee yet. She had a full life yet to live, and she had to make the choice to let herself live it.
“I cannot change it. And if I can’t change it, I’m going to live with it the best that I can. Because if you fight it, you’re just tearing yourself up, and it just doesn’t work that way.”
Today, she keeps herself busy playing bridge, attending a book club, teaching Sunday School, making waffles for her children and grandchildren every Saturday, and traveling all over the world. In just the last fifteen years, she’s been to Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Ireland, the Amazon, down the Danube and cruised the Nile. By this time next year, she’ll have traveled to Scotland, Dublin, Wales and London.
She thinks very little of being older. And takes the best and makes the best of every day.
“This is what you’ve been given and it’s not the best. You don’t have all the money in the world, you don’t have the best health in the world, you’re not young anymore. This is what you have. Now, what can you do with it?”
Clearly Miss Lee isn’t your average eighty-three year old. No matter her circumstances, she seizes every day and gives it all she has. When I asked her what advice she would give to her grandchildren, I thought it was rather applicable to who she is; unique and unlike anybody else.
“I think it’s wonderful if people can be who they are. Whatever their talents are. You don’t have to be like anybody else. You have to be acceptable to people, but you don’t have to be like everybody else.”
– Want to read more from Lee? Check out her Q&A post here