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A full life, with or without children

October 25, 2008|SANDY BANKS

So much for the empty nest.

Last month, I was contemplating life alone in my four-bedroom house. My oldest daughter stayed in Northern California after college, my middle child had just moved into her own apartment, and my baby was nine months away from high school graduation and planning to attend college anywhere but here.

This month it seems I can't get rid of them. A job transfer brought the eldest back. And the middle one stops by the house every evening for a free dinner and my coin-free washer and dryer.

Now I'm being crowded by three young women spreading their stuff around instead of spreading their wings.

Yet I'm happy enough about my full house to wonder: How will I cope when I really do have an empty nest?

Enter Florence Anderson -- Aunt Tiny to her family and friends.

She never had children and lost her husband 20 years ago, after a marriage that lasted for 45 years. She's made living alone an adventure and an art, and she's still got a lot on her "to do" list.

And she's been at it for more than a century.

I visited Aunt Tiny as a favor to a friend, Joyce Hurley, who said her 101-year-old aunt enjoys my column and is an avid Times reader.

When I drove Friday to her home in Torrance, at the Villa Sorrento retirement community, I figured I'd find someone frail, confused, in need of patient handling.

Aunt Tiny was waiting in the lobby to walk me to her room, her only concession to old age a recently acquired cane. "I do fine on the carpet," she told me, stepping briskly past the dining room, beauty salon and music center, "but the tile floors can get slippery."

We spent the next two hours flipping through her scrapbooks and photo albums. I can't cover 100 years in a newspaper column, so here's the Cliffs Notes version:

Florence Riley was born in Baton Rouge, La., in 1906, the daughter of a railroad worker. She became a teacher right out of high school and earned her college degree during summers. She was studying at Tuskegee Institute when she met and married a Tuskegee Airman.

"All the young women went to Tuskegee at the time to try to meet one of those fine young men," she told me. Her fine young man, James Anderson, was 13 years younger than she, and from Los Angeles.

They moved here after World War II and built a house in Pasadena. He was an accountant, she a social worker.

In their free time, they traveled the world -- Mexico, Canada, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland.

In 1972, they retired to a farm in Northern California. "Neither of us had ever farmed," she said. But during a visit to Lake Tahoe, they fell in love with the area.

Her husband died in 1988, and she moved to Inglewood to be near family members. Six years ago, tired of driving, she moved to a small apartment in the retirement complex, where her meals are served in a dining room, housekeepers clean her apartment each day, and exercise classes are a few steps away.

Her only complaint? "I'm going to have to give up some of my volunteering," she said. "I just have too many things to do."

I expected lots of stories of the "good old days," but Aunt Tiny's not much for talking about the past. Instead, she left me with lessons for my future.

Make and keep good friends.

Her albums are full of pictures of friends, and she can name each one. On her desk is a stack of letters to answer, from people she's met on her travels, sorority sisters, golfing buddies, the children of old neighbors and college chums. "I hate that they're dying off," she said.

Keep active.

There's a photo of Aunt Tiny in an exercise class at an Inglewood park, wearing a bright striped leotard, purple tights and lavender leg warmers. She was well into her 90s then. She still exercises every week. Her only physical complaint is a touch of bursitis.


After her husband died, she kept going -- alone, when she had to. When her church choir went to Seoul, she tagged along. "I wasn't a member," she said, "but I wasn't letting them go without me." When a preacher friend arranged a trip to the Holy Land, she couldn't miss seeing Jerusalem. After apartheid ended in South Africa, she joined a dozen women she didn't know for her first visit to Africa. She rode shotgun on a night safari, pushing 95.

Stay informed.

She and her friends cut out newspaper articles, send them to each other, discuss them in long telephone conversations. She was watching CNN when I visited and had just finished reading "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama.

"You'd enjoy it," she told me. "He's an excellent writer." And I felt embarrassed because I haven't read it . . . and because unlike me, she doesn't need reading glasses.

As I drove home, I couldn't help wondering how different her life would have been if she'd been Mommy to someone, instead of Aunt Tiny.

I wondered if she regretted not having kids, and I tallied up what children cost and wondered what my life would have been without them.

Aunt Tiny is happy, healthy and her mind's intact . . . and she'll be 102 next month. I figure that each kid has knocked a decade off my life -- I'll be lucky to make it to 71.


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