103 years of love

The minivan approaches mile 200 of highway when they see it.

It’s only a glimpse, but it’s enough.

There in the distance, crowded among the wind turbines and oak trees, it still stands out.

The books in the back seat are zipped into their backpacks, the shoes are strapped onto their feet.

The drive into town is flat, so it stays in view for boys in the back seat. In this part of the world, there is no need for maps or GPS systems.

The white water tower is all that’s required.

On the side of the white water tower are 11 black letters:


In front of the white water tower that spells Graettinger is a little blue house.

Inside the little blue house, in front of the white water tower that spells Graettinger, is a grandma I wish every one of you could meet.

Tears welled in my great grandmother’s eyes as I leaned in to say goodbye for one of the last times.

She sat in a chair inside a small room about 13 miles north of the little blue house.

A nursing home never suited Lillian Hanson.

“At least I still have my head,” she said a few hours earlier, watching folks 20 years younger struggle to recall much of anything.

Grandma Hanson lived to be 103 years old. She was always younger than her age.

A waiter once asked her if she was old enough for the senior discount. She was 92.

At 97, she laughed as she congratulated me on graduating high school. “There’s no way I’ll be around when you graduate college.” I knew she was wrong. I think she did, too.

When I called her for a family heritage paper, she easily told stories of her childhood as if she were the college student, fondly looking back on a more innocent period of life. She was 100.

Every visit to the little blue house included a moment of incredulity in which she’d look at us, say her age, smile and shake her head.

As businesses and schools closed around that water tower, nothing seemed to change inside the house but another 12 flips of the calendar.

If you could sit down with someone who’s lived 103 years on this earth, what would you ask them?

The history buff in me would want to know about the eras they lived through, the change they saw. What was life like during the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement?

Grandma Hanson could tell you stories about life in those days. I have a feeling she’d rather talk about the people she met.

An hour or so after each of my family’s visits to that little blue house in front of the white water tower, Grandma Hanson would clasp her hands and look around the room with a smile so wide it was impossible to not smile back.

“Gosh, I love having you all here,” she’d say. It’s my most cherished memory.

Grandma Hanson loved golfing, dancing, small-town life and Iowa basketball.

But more than anything, she loved people and she loved her family.

There are days when interacting with other humans feels like a chore for me. But for Grandma Hanson, that’s what made 103 years of life incredible.

When we stopped by the gas station or the country store, the library or the cafe, folks in Graettinger asked who the strangers were. We only had to mention Grandma Hanson, and the smiles followed.

Everyone that knew her loved her like their own grandma.

When you’re a kid, you dream of vacations to theme parks and baseball stadiums. We took those trips, too. But that feeling when I saw the white water tower is something no thrill ride can replicate.

The cinnamon rolls were mouthwatering and the strawberry pie was delectable (I never did like the meatballs, though, sorry Grandma), but as the years went by, the unfailing love is what I began to cherish most about Grandma Hanson.

That’s what made goodbyes so difficult.

Saying goodbye this time isn’t easy. But I’m thinking of the people she’s greeting with that smile right now — her husband, Howard, her daughter, Mary Alice, and countless others — and I’m smiling, too, even as a few tears well in my eyes as I watch the white water tower disappear from the minivan’s rearview mirror.