JACKI LYDEN, host:
On May 25th, my Aunt Elli Lyden in Ireland turns 100. I say my aunt — and she is an aunt to me — but she's not really my aunt. When I went back with my grandfather to his ancestral village of Clifden, Ireland, in 1986, he was eager to search for his relatives.
We found Ellie and her brother, Michael, cutting turf for the fire across from a whitewashed, rose-covered cottage on the Galway Road. It wasn't until decades later that I found out that my actual blood relations are most likely the Lydens who operate the local driving school. But by then, Ellie was family.
I don't know if we're related, she said that day when I first met her. But we'll just go on as if we were. And so, we have. I visited her nearly every year since. At 100, Ellie makes me think about motherhood. She's never been a mother, nor have I. She's never married, I did only recently. She lived with her brother until he died. Yet, she's mothered a whole village in Clifden, and in her way, a whole country. Many people have found their way to her door — strangers who became friends.
Across that doorstep, where the roses grow and the hydrangeas bloom a cobalt blue, is her hearth. It's now an oil stove where the tea is kept warm. On the walls, just the same as the day we met, she keeps the pictures of Padraig Pearse, Gerry Adams, John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II.
Her laugh is still a girlish laugh; her manner gentle, and her white hair remains so curly it reminds me of a silvered dandelion's puff. When she was a girl, she wasn't allowed to emigrate. She stayed behind to take care of her mother, who lived to be 102. Now, she looks out the very same windows that her mother did.
I think its elders like Ellie that Ireland really has to credit. They're the mighty who hung on when Irish life was grim and gray, driven by poverty and civil war and suffering out-migration. Everyone who visits her sees the endurance in Ellie. There's a history she knows that others are forgetting: where the English barracks once stood in Clifden, when the Black and Tans torched the town and how IRA men on the run would come and hide.
For her 100th birthday — besides a private Mass celebrated at home — she'll be glad for everyday things: knitting socks and mittens, chatting with Maureen, the cousin who cares so well for her. She'll coddle Rosie, her border collie mix. Perhaps she'll gather some of the bantam hen's eggs. I expect some of her visitors will be Clifden's younger entrepreneurs, whose Ireland couldn't be more different.
Ireland's changing, Jacki, Ellie tells me every year. There's no one milking their own cows no more, nor making their own brown bread neither. But she still kneads and bakes that old soda bread loaf, which I carry back with me on the plane. Ellie nurtures a very traditional piece of Ireland's past. Like all centenarians, she's getting a cash gift and a congratulatory card from the Irish president in Dublin, a city she's never even visited.
This weekend, as America celebrates motherhood, I'm reminded again that it is not only a biological fact. It's a quality of nurturing — yourself, others and a way of life. And that's something Ellie Lyden has done for the last 100 years.
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LYDEN: This is NPR News.