Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 10, 2002

Two lives that spanned an amazing century

The past several days, my mind has been on two women who died recently. These women had much in common, but also vast differences.

Each woman’s life spanned more than 100 ears, but one was British royalty, the other a common American. One was fabulously wealthy, the other far, far from it.

The Queen Mother of Elizabeth is, of course, the royal woman I’m referring to. After her death on March 31 at 101, Great Britain held a grand funeral attended by heads of state and other monarchs.

The other was my maternal grandmother, Clara Baker. When she died on April 2, she was about five months shy of her 101st birthday. She was buried Saturday after a modest funeral in Grand Haven, Mich.

Although one was a queen, the other a commoner, both overcame adversity.

The queen mother’s life is well documented. She unexpectedly ascended to the throne when her brother-in-law, King Edward, abdicated so he could marry Wallis Simpson. She rose to the role forced upon her and inspired her nation during World War II, earning the respect and affection of her countrymen.

Meanwhile, across the pond in America, my grandmother married and had nine (yes, nine) children. Her husband was not the most reliable man, and left his family for good in the early 1940s. Think of the stigma and hardship of being a single mother in that era – I wonder how she survived it. During her 100-plus years, she outlived four of her children.

When I ponder these women, I wonder how they dealt with the mind-boggling changes they witnessed during the 20th century.

In 1900, when the queen mother was born, William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan for the U.S. presidency, the “Wizard of Oz” was published and The Associated Press was founded.

In 1901, when my grandmother was born, President McKinley was assassinated, radio was invented, Thomas Edison worked to improve the motion picture camera, and the average life expectancy was 49 years.

In the ensuing years, lives changed at a dizzying pace. Airplanes were invented by the Wright brothers, automobiles progressed from the Model T, which sold in 1924 for $200, to the SUV, explorers reached the North Pole, and women were granted the right to vote.

The United States expanded from 45 to 50 states – Oklahoma became the 46th state, New Mexico the 47th, Arizona the 48th, Alaska the 49th and Hawaii the 50th.

This country fought in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War.

These women saw the establishment of the U.S. Social Security System in 1935 and the first federal minimum wage of 25 cents per hour in 1938. They were alive when the first atomic bomb was dripped in Hiroshima in 1945.

They saw the rise of radio and then television. In 1947, there were an estimated 9,000 television sets in the United States, compared to 31 million radios. During their lifetimes, television programming evolved from “I Love Lucy” to “South Park,” from “To Tell the Truth” to “Jackass.” Music evolved from ragtime to Big Band, from rock and roll to hip hop, from Motown to rap.

These women survived the Great Depression, Prohibition, the Cold War and McCarthyism.

They saw the discovery of insulin in 1921, and the development of a polio vaccine in 1954. They were alive for the foundation of the United Nations and Israel, the fall of Apartheid and man landing on the moon.

When they died in 2002, more than one billion TV sets had been sold worldwide; AIDS was an epidemic in search of a vaccine or cure; Americans could expect to live nearly 77 years; work on an international space station was progressing; computers shrank from filling rooms to filling palms; and bathing suits shrank from full coverage to thongs with optional tops.

However they felt about the changes they witnessed, one thing is certain: Rest in peace, ladies, you deserve it.


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