My Great-Grandmother’s Secrets to Longevity
By Makella Brems
In a town of 228 people, the Fourth of July is no small event. Committees arrange activities months in advance. Extended family members come trudging over remote roads and pile into crowded houses. Children overflow into tents on lawns, waving sparklers and stomping on snappers nights before the celebrations are set to take place. With the nearest movie theater—not to mention the nearest grocery store—at over an hour’s drive away, this is the most excitement the people of Boulder, Utah will see for several months.
Framed by the red slot canyons and white sandstone mesas of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on all sides, Boulder is one of the best kept secrets in the American West. With such remote beauty comes an unforgiving desert climate. Years of draught have turned Boulder into a tinderbox. This means, as it has for many summers, there will be no culminating fireworks show.
Perhaps to compensate for the absence of what many see as the crux of Independence Day, the town has come to flaunt an extensive list of annual town-wide activities surrounding the holiday. All throughout the week, locals and visitors can attend dances with live bands, an ice cream social, a talent show, an outdoor movie screening, and a potluck complete with a skewered pig. But before any of the binge eating or contra dancing can commence, the townspeople line the main street with folding chairs to witness what is arguably the most important event of the week: the town parade. As the first event to kick off the holiday, the parade acts much like an opening ceremony — the symbolic gesture that sets the tone for all that is to follow.
As I sit near the end of the parade line watching the various displays go by—a trailer decorated for a beach party, a child’s wagon turned jail for pudgy infant convicts—I hear increased excitement pittering down the row of spectators for one of the approaching floats. I stand up and crane my neck to get a glimpse. It is a four wheeler dressed up like a newlyweds’ getaway car, and there, at the helm of the lauded float is my ninety-four-year-old great-grandmother. With one hand on the gas and the other gracing the crowd with a regal wave, she escorts my great-grandfather, Bob, who is sitting just behind her. They trail a bundle of tin cans and a sign that reads “Just Married 75 Years”. It is truly awe-inspiring, as in it elicits gooey “Awwws” from the line of parade goers.
A holiday visitor nearest me expresses her astonishment at the sight of such an aged woman manning a formidable off-roading vehicle. “I can’t believe she can still drive that thing.” Little does this visitor know that milling down the street in first gear is nothing compared to a typical day in the life of this hardy woman.
Naomi Brems, or “Grandma,” as she is more widely known to her thirty-six grandchildren, seventy-two great-grandchildren and, most recently, her three great-great-grandchildren, can put any self-proclaimed busybody to shame. Naomi fills her days tending to her stunning four-acre property and all its floral inhabitants. She prunes, she weeds, she snips, and she sows. She barrels up hilly fortresses dividing fruit trees from flower beds on her ATV. When she thinks no protective eye is watching, she precariously reaches for weeds down the steep berms of the icy creek that runs through the property. And if you have even a hint of fantastical curiosity left within you, you may just spy her whispering to the fairies that surely dwell amongst the knolls and gullies of her tediously kept Queendom.
Defending such a vast Queendom does not come without its sacrifices. Dastardly pests attempt to invade at the first sign of weakness. A single hole in the garden fence can mean the loss of an entire row of innocent tomatoes. Bob fell under skunk sniper fire while attempting to prevent such a fruit massacre last summer. Naomi herself has suffered massive casualties. In the past several years, she has broken a femur and a hip in the line of duty. Like a battered wartime general, she refuses to give up the life of danger and sacrifice her tenacious spirit depends on.
Whenever one of Naomi’s six children drives to town to pay a visit, she hears the same pleas as she comes climbing up the porch steps from an afternoon of yard work with tools in her hands. “Mom, please! You need to have your cane with you at all times.” Naomi, age-defying at all other moments, suddenly adopts the form of a feeble old woman. She gives her best solemn look. “You’re right, darlin’”. She hunches down her neck and lifts up her hands as if submitting to the overwhelming weight of decay. “It’s just that I forget so easily”—this, coming from the woman who can recall with a few snaps of her finger where each of her offspring’s offspring’s offspring is attending school and what musical instrument they play.
I’ve been coming to Boulder with my immediate family every summer since the age of two. Each year at the end of our stay, I’d say goodbye to Naomi with misty eyes at the thought that this may be the last time I would see her, and each year I returned to find her just as I left her the year before.
I am still only a young woman. I have not yet lived a quarter of a century, but I recognize that this long, full life of my great-grandmother’s is something quite exceptional. I feel the need to trace her every step so as to be able to share in her good fortunes.
This summer, I found myself in a unique position to conduct a detailed investigation of Naomi’s habits and routines. After enduring several long and difficult months in my tiny Harlem apartment, I sought a break from the constant stresses of the city and made for Boulder with haste. For the first time, I drove to Boulder without the company of any of my folks, and I made plans to stay at my great-grandparents’ house for the whole month. Where the house is typically packed with visiting family members, this summer it would only be my great-grandparents and my great-aunt and uncle, who are building a house nearby. Naomi would be all mine.
What started in the first week of my visit as admiration for Naomi’s tireless work ethic turned to suspicion by week two. After ten days of sunup to sundown yard work, I began to wonder just how little Grandma Naomi was pulling this off. From what supernatural source was she accessing her unceasing resilience? From what flowing fountain of youth was she drinking when no one was looking? After ruling out the possibility of sacrificial virgins, I sleuthed my way through the pantry. There, I made a shocking discovery: A case of Diet Coke. This devout Mormon woman (if the living in Utah and the seventy-two great-grandchildren weren’t enough of a dead giveaway, now you know) has been shooting herself up with carbonated caffeine. I call my Dad to share the juicy news. Though neither he or I, nor the rest of my immediate family are practicing Mormons, my Dad grew up in the church long enough to know that many Mormons do, in fact, drink caffeinated soda. I also learn that Naomi has been drinking Diet Coke for years. Perhaps this fizzy chemical cocktail has been preserving her from the inside out, I hypothesize. After all, I’ve seen what Coke does to old pennies. But there are many serial soda drinkers out there, and how many of them age gracefully?
I continue my careful observations of Naomi’s habits, determined to reveal her secret to immortality. She rises early. In fact, she had me set her alarm an hour back from her winter wake up time of 7:00 AM which apparently is “sleeping in”. She comes out of her room fully dressed in skinny jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and her long, white hair neatly pinned back. I have never seen her in her pajamas. She plays her baby grand piano every single morning, starting with scales and ending with one of her favorites, perhaps “America the Beautiful,” or “What a Wonderful World.” She eats breakfast, usually a bagel and juice. She feeds her many hummingbirds. Then she sets to work on the yard, only stopping for lunch or to make sure Bob isn’t taking too long a rest from his assigned duties on a hidden bench or couch. She eats a light dinner followed by a sugary treat. We often sit on the back porch eating popsicles once the sun drops behind the mesas and reflect on the day passed. She and Bob retire to their room together, sometimes as late as 10:00 PM and sit side by side in armchairs to read or to watch a TV program. They express their love for one another often. They hold hands and talk alone together and laugh. They share in household chores. I am told that the first time Naomi ever kissed Bob, he leapt off her porch and ran all the way down the road before remembering he left his car parked in the driveway.
Naomi has many beings that depend on her. Should she decide to take a day off, her American Beauties would wilt, her Broad-tailed hummingbirds would go hungry, and everyone in the house would lose hours of productivity in the absence of their 7:30 AM piano wake up call.
Bob, too, would suffer in the absence of her deluge of commands. Like Naomi, he thrives in a state of routine hard work, but after a bout of intestinal complications and surgeries, he has started to slow down. He takes longer and more frequent naps and has been known to steal away to the gas station up the road to escape Naomi’s clutches. At ninety-six, who can blame him? Still, he knows just as well as she the universal truth of Newton’s first law: An object in motion stays in motion and an object at rest stays at rest. Naomi keeps Bob in motion, and this, in turn, keeps Naomi in motion.
This past summer, Naomi became the oldest woman in town when the former title-holder passed away the day after her hundredth birthday. As the recipient of five Golden Shovel awards for superior landscaping in the state of Utah, Naomi has always been up for a healthy competition. She has her sights set on one hundred one. I don’t think anyone expects less from Naomi Brems.
A while back, National Geographic produced a piece about “Blue Zones,” or pockets of civilization with abnormally high numbers of centenarians (people who’ve made it to one hundred) and low rates of severe illnesses like heart disease and cancer. Among the healthiest and longest-living groups were the Sardinians, the Okinawans, and the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda, California. Naomi shares many qualities in common with the centenarians featured in the piece. For one, they all seem to garden and spend a great deal of time outdoors. They deeply value family, they belong to close-knit communities, and they tend to possess a strong sense of faith.
I’m not saying I plan to sprint over to the temple for a holy dunking any time soon, but I do see the essential role that Naomi’s faith plays in her vitality. On a basic level, belonging to a church provides one with a community of like-minded individuals who are divinely obligated to support one another. Naomi has a built-in support system, as well as a call to purpose to care for her fellow community members. On a deeper level, Naomi isn’t wrought with existential uncertainties. She has a guidebook that gives her a sense of direction in even the most testing of times. And at the end of every day, she bids the love of her life goodnight knowing in her heart that they will meet again should one of them not make it ‘til morning.
Gardening, family, community, and faith—the only facet of Naomi’s lifestyle that differs from that of the Blue Zone communities is her diet. Unlike the legumes and nuts consumed by the Okinawans, the red wine of the Sardinians, or the vegetarianism of the Adventists, Naomi’s diet consists largely of white bread in various forms, lemonade, meat, cottage cheese, and, as with any good Mormon, plenty of Jell-O.
With such a divergence from Nat Geo’s centenarians in this regard, how, then, is Naomi so healthy? In my own self-interest, I chalk it up to superior genetics. I then venture back into her pantry — this time to eat some candy that I now know will do me no harm. Picking my way through the shelves for Jelly Beans and Milky Ways, I notice a sheet of paper taped to one of the shelves in the back corner of the pantry. I pop another piece of chocolate in my mouth and lean in to study it. It has “God’s World” handwritten at the top with some typed lines below. I first take it to be a passage from the Bible, but upon closer examination with help from Google, I discover that it is a portion of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
I ask Naomi about it over popsicles that evening, thinking it is probably some long forgotten sheet of paper that she or Bob taped up one day on a whim. Without pausing for a moment, she starts reciting the second stanza, not in a way that is showing off, but slowly, with earnest care for each word.
“World, world I cannot get thee close enough. Long have I known a glory in it all. But never knew I this,” she closes her eyes for a moment to thread the next line through what must be millions of memories. “Here such a passion is as stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear, that thou’st made the world too beautiful this year. My soul is all but out of me. Let fall no burning leaf. Prithee, let no bird call,” she opens her eyes and smiles quaintly at my astonished face, “…or something like that.”
Three weeks into my stay, the frozen bagel stocks were all but gone and we were down to our last packet of sugar-free lemonade. The time had come to make the arduous journey to the grocery store. At an hour’s drive away, the Escalante country store provides a far greater selection at far less a price than Boulder’s general store (a box of Cheerios put me out $6.75). This discrepancy in cost can likely be attributed to the limited access to the town. The only (paved) road connecting Boulder to the outside world is a single-lane highway that turns to a winding mountain pass to the North and, to the South, a precarious stretch of road called The Hogsback. After completing The Hogsback, tourists can purchase T-shirts from the town gift shop that have “Life’s too short for guardrails” written across them. This is the route to the country store.
Naomi, Bob, my great-aunt, uncle, and I suit up for the journey. For me, this means a pair of leggings and sandals. For Naomi, this means slim fitting jeans and high heels—yes, heels. After her latest injury, the doctor strictly prohibited her from wearing what she calls her “Happy Shoes”—a pair of shiny, crimson red heels that rise several inches off the ground. Now, she is limited to a lower matte black pair. Even still, she draws admiring eyes from passing strangers.
The five of us pile into my great aunt’s car and begin our ascent over The Hogsback. On either side of the scanty road, steep sandstone ledges drop dramatically, fearsomely, into tree-filled ravines. I try to dispel the image of our car tumbling to the bottom like a wadded up piece of paper. In the passenger seat, Naomi stares wide-eyed out of the window over the unfolding landscape. Cumulonimbus clouds reach their billowy tufts up toward the heavens. Rows of burnt orange and crusted white sedimentary rocks jut out one in front of the other in a race to the edges of the earth. “Wow,” she keeps saying in a low voice. I can’t imagine how many times Naomi has traveled over this road, yet she looks out on the view as if for the first time. She turns her soft blue eyes to me and gives a smile before being lured back—every rock face gleams to catch her gaze. She answers in rapture. She is beyond the pane, beyond the road. She stretches to meet the horizon.
Makella Brems currently resides in New York City. She fills her free-time by taking photos and writing about the daily adventures that life has to offer and documents them in her blog (kellabnyc.com). You might also catch her skateboarding through Central Park, stumbling her way through an *Absolute* Beginner Hip Hop class, or causing sidewalk traffic jams by walking far, far slower than the average New Yorker.