“In 99 years, there’s not much I can say hasn’t changed.”
Rhea was referred to me by a friend, and I was impressed the moment I met her. A small woman (probably only 4’11”) with a huge heart, she welcomed me with homemade cookies, declaring that she always sends people away with a box full. As you can see in her portrait, she is a lover of books, a topic we were able to meet on right away. With a cold glass of water, we sat down in a pair of beautiful arm chairs in her vaulted living room, and began the interview.
Rhea Wark Currie was born July 29, 1916 in Peck, Michigan, near Lake Huron. The only states she has ever lived in are Michigan and Florida, which she visited with her husband during winter. They always lived on a golf course in Florida, because her husband loved to play golf.
“It was a quieter time. People stayed put more than they do, now.”
Rhea was born early enough to vaguely remember World War One, something remarkable for any living person today. Her father wasn’t drafted because he was a government employee at the State Department in Washington DC (he later was diagnosed with a lung condition and was told to live in the country, so moved to Michigan as a Postal Worker). His only sibling was a sister, who, of course, was not drafted. Rhea’s mother had several siblings, but they were mostly farmers. Her main contact with the war, then, was through conversation and news clippings her dad took that talked of their friends who went to war.
She told me that the Great Depression wasn’t talked about in her family. Really, the Depression didn’t come until she was entering college. What she told me she later found out about that time made me tear up:
She loved to roller skate with her friends and cousins near home. When she was twelve, a new highway had just been lain, which she had been explicitly told not to go on. But one evening she and three of her girlfriends chose to skate down it, and realized their folly as the sun went down and they were quite far from home. They decided to turn around and go home, but they were scared they wouldn’t make it before dark. A car soon appeared and they got excited since they were tired and scared. It turned out to be Rhea’s father. Her friends scrambled into the car, but she was not permitted. He remarked, “I’m sorry. You were not to come out here, tonight. You skated out, and you will have to skate home. But I will not leave you.” He drove next to her the entire way.
Rhea met her husband while at school at Alma College. They moved to Midland, MI so he could work at Dow Chemical and use his degree in chemistry. She got her degree in teaching, and taught until their first son came along, at which point she began volunteering at the Red Cross answering phones (during World War Two). She says Midland still feels like a neighborhood, though the town has grown into a vibrant small city. I could tell she loves it there, and she is deeply involved in the community as a volunteer to this day.
“I’m just not getting [the electronic world].”
Rhea does have an iPad and uses it quite a bit for email, but she still feels like an outsider to the technological era we’ve entered. She remarked that every other change came about gradually, so people could keep up. She feels electronics have taken off like a rocket, which has made it hard for her (and others) to learn them. Rhea finds it funny that when she does her banking she never sees the cash.
“Every evening at five o’clock, [we] sat down wherever we were, and [my husband] would have his martini, and we would play gin rummy.”
It seems like “we lose the personal” due to the electronics that we’ve created. Rhea continues to attend a card group every week, and was annoyed to that effect as one of the ladies would bring her tablet and continually interrupt the game to show pictures. Rhea finally told the acquaintance to please keep it put away during the game because that’s what they were all there for.
Rhea also remarked that technology is changing how families are brought up. She observes them on family night at the country club, and can see that there is no interaction between family members, even during dinner. Everyone is absorbed with the screen in their hand. She honestly wondered to me if they ever speak to each other.
Her son, teaching a class at New York University on Communication, reports that it is so strange that the class is necessary. But the students are stunned by the lessons in class. They just haven’t been socialized in the common-sense ways those aged post-25 seem to take for granted.
She elaborated on all this when asked what we’ve lost to technology.
Rhea does admire how we can stay in contact with people in other places, things happening in other countries, and the ability to be empathetic to the goings on elsewhere. She doesn’t remember doing so, even after World War Two, when there was a good deal of suffering after so many towns and cities had been decimated. Today, we know when another country is in hardship, and can react in a meaningful way.
“There have been more changes, through the years, except I never think of myself as 99 years old. I still drive, I still am very active. There was a gal at the hospital… that kept asking, ‘Why won’t you join our service?’ and I responded, ‘I am too old.’ She said, ‘What do you mean you’re too old?’ I could not go into the room of a 60-year-old woman dying of cancer, and try to cheer her up… nor do I want to go into the room of a very ill 30-year-old who sees me as this healthy old lady with white hair. Am I wrong?”