A life well-lived

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Last week, I interviewed Mary Jane Fritsch at Green Acre Lodge. Mary Jane recently turned 103, and she has spent most of that time in Carroll County. She moved to the county with her family when she was around 5 years old, living in and around Eureka Springs for a number of years. Mary Jane was quick to tell me that she felt "free as a bird" when she was an adolescent, recounting how her family purchased and cultivated several plots of land in the county.

Her grandfather bought land for her aunts, but Mary Jane said the women in her family were responsible for cultivating that land. She explained that her Aunt Margaret was the first woman in the county to place a fence around her property. Before that happened, Mary Jane said the county was completely open range.

"The men didn't like that," she noted. It wasn't just the fence they disliked. She said they also felt uncomfortable that a woman was responsible for putting the fence up. Keep in mind that this happened before women had the right to vote, when most women were expected to marry and take care of the home. Mary Jane pointed out that Aunt Margaret hadn't only put a fence up; she also lived alone on her property and took care of her business without a husband guiding her.

As Mary Jane spoke, it struck me how much society has changed since she was born. She has lived through women's suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, two world wars and 16 presidents. She didn't touch on any of these subjects when we spoke, but I could tell by the way she talked that she's seen more in her life than most of us ever will.

How incredible must it be, I thought, to be born when African-Americans were considered second-class citizens and to live to see America's first black president take office? How surreal is it, I wondered, for her to grow up in a society where women rarely took positions of power and to now see a woman running for president?

I touched on this in last week's column, but it bears repeating. You don't have to like President Obama. You don't have to like Hillary Clinton. You don't have to have warm feelings for either of these people to realize how incredible it is that they wouldn't have stood a chance to run for president even 50 years ago. I wrote that column before I interviewed Mary Jane, and I sure wish I hadn't. Talking to her helped me realize just how much our country has changed. She reminded me that life in America hasn't always been the way it is today, and I feel much more grateful to be an American because of that.

Surprisingly, Mary Jane didn't talk about the past as if she had an opinion on it. She certainly has opinions, but she narrated the past like you'd read it in a history book. She described how her aunts lived their independent lives in a society where that wasn't acceptable in a very matter-of-fact way. That's just the way it was, she explained. Her aunts were fiercely independent, she said, and she was, too. I got the feeling that she would have been fiercely independent even if she'd been born in 1713.

When a person has a strong will to live their own way, not much can shake that. The state of society didn't stop Mary Jane's aunts from living alone, and it certainly didn't hold Mary Jane back from living independently. That's so inspiring. I'd say it's inspiring to me as a woman, but that doesn't quite capture the magnitude of it. To live the life you want to live regardless of what others think should inspire everyone on a basic human level. I hope it inspires you as much as it inspired me.

Leaving Green Acre, I gazed back at Mary Jane. She was talking to a friend and looking out a big window at the hills and homes of Holiday Island. I realized that to Mary Jane, it doesn't matter what happens next week or next year. She's already lived such a rich life in a community we're all happy to call home.

For the past 103 years, she has truly lived. If I live half the life she has, I'll consider myself lucky.

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Samantha Jones is associate editor for Carroll County Newspapers. Her email address is Citizen.Editor.Eureka@gmail.com.