By Stephen Gainer

On Thursday, November 6, 2003, one of the most amazing women that I have ever known passed away. She was, depending on who you talked to, either 102 or 103.

The reason for the ambiguity in her age is partly attributable to herself, which is just one more thing that made her a truly unique human being.

You see, Lona believed that when you were born, your age was "one". I asked her about that one time, wondering why she would start at "one" when no one else did. Her very simple answer was, "No one is a zero". I couldn't argue with that.

I grew up out on Sand Ridge, and Lona and Clarence were my "next door neighbors". That is, theirs was the house just past Cecil and Celesta Cunningham, about a quarter mile from ours. When I was a child, the road we lived on was rock base.

My big brother can remember when it was dirt. To my knowledge, Lona never learned to drive a car, preferring to walk most places. Barefoot. Rain or shine, winter or summer. That's right, she used to walk over to our house, in the winter, with snow on ground, to see my grandmother, Ora Gainer, wearing nothing on her feet except maybe an old pair of socks.

In good weather, she would always carry a hoe with her, and fix the holes in the road on the way. This is a state road, remember, not just someone's driveway or an old road that might run through your meadow. She didn't even drive on this road, but she took the time to repair it for the other people that did.

I live in the big city now, and the first time that I picked up the phone to call the Department of Highways to complain about a pothole in front of my home, I remembered Lona fixing our road with a hoe. A road she didn't even drive on.

When my call went through and the young lady answered the phone at the DOH, instead of launching into a tirade about all the lazy good-for-nothings that worked there, which is what I had planned, I very politely asked if someone could come and fix the hole. I like to think that Lona would have been proud of me.

Lona and her husband Clarence are no actual relation to me, although I have always felt like they were. From the earliest times that I can remember, they were always there, always willing to sit and talk a spell with me even if I was just a little kid.

She also always managed to have something good to eat whenever I happened to drop in. When I got older, I liked to just "drop in" around dinnertime, because Lona was a great cook. But as a kid, Lona would come up with something a little more on the sweet side. On Halloween, the best treat of all was the homemade popcorn balls that she made. Great, huge balls of sticky sweetness that were nearly as big as my head.

Years later, after I was out of school and making my way on my own, I got to wondering if perhaps those popcorn balls only tasted that good through the mists of time and memory, taking on a golden glow that, while comforting, often blurs the edges of what actually happened to what we wish had happened. A lot of childhood memories are like that.

So once while home on a vacation I stopped in and asked Lona if she would make me some popcorn balls like she used to for Halloween. I admit that in the back of my mind I was already preparing my little speech of, "Oh Lona! These are just delicious!" I would say, while just waiting to get home so that I could throw them out. Well, once again, Lona surprised me. I bit into the first one, and was instantly transported back in time.

I was about five and dressed as Batman. After shouting the ubiquitous "Trick-or-Treat", Clarence jumped up and said, "Quick Lona, where's the gun?! We've got critters here!" I crawled under a chair (I could still describe that chair to you, what it was made of, how the arm was worn) and pleaded, "Don't shoot me Clarence, its me Steve!" Clarence was a big man, over six feet, very imposing for a five year old. But a big smile spread over his face and he allowed as maybe he did know me after all, and out came the popcorn balls. Well, let me tell you, twenty or so years later, those popcorn balls were just as good.

You cannot remember Lona without first acknowledging her faith in God. Her faith was a quiet faith. She never tried to convert you, or preach to you, or hand you a pamphlet. No, her faith had a much greater power. At her funeral, a woman from Lona's church spoke, giving the eulogy, a Rev. Olive Swiney.

I thought it was one of the most heartfelt and touching testaments that I have ever heard, and everyone there agreed that it was exactly what Lona would have wanted. You see, one of the things that Rev. Swiney said, and she said it several times, was that she was not preaching Lona's obituary.

And the reason that she was not preaching it was because Lona had lived it every day of her life. I agree whole-heartedly. Over the years, Lona and I had several discussions about religion, and I don't believe I have ever known anyone to hold their faith so deep, and so simply. To Lona, there were no real hard questions.

All you had to do was ask God and read the bible, and all the answers were there. When I was a teenager, and rebelling against everything as all teenagers do, I would still go to Lona's house and talk to her and most times her answers consisted of a small smile and the words, "The bible says…" I believe that there was more power in this woman's simple, quiet faith than any preacher I have ever heard.

Lona was also the hardest working person I have ever known, man or woman, period. If you think this is perhaps an exaggeration, consider this; while passing Lona's house on the way to the store, my brother noticed a ladder up against a tree, with some bushel baskets at the base. He continued to let his eyes roam upward, thinking, "No, no, she isn't doing that, is she?"

But yes, there she was, up in the top of a peach tree, picking peaches. She wanted to get them before the animals did, she said. I don't suppose there is anything too remarkable about that, unless you consider that she was 88 years old at the time. Cokey (my big brother) came home and told us all the story, and we all oohed and ahhed and remarked as how we were all going to have to keep an eye on her because she was getting old and was going to fall out of the tree or off the roof and hurt herself. What we forgot was…this is Lona.

Seven years later, at the age of 95, she was still mowing her yard with a push mower. Three years after that, when she was 98 and had moved into her daughters home because she thought she needed someone to take care of her, I personally saw her working in the vegetable garden, hoe in hand. On the day that she died, although now living in a nursing home, she had dressed herself and put herself into her own wheel chair. Yes, I can say with no hesitation that Lona was the hardest working person I have ever known.

She was also resourceful and inventive, taking a direct, practical, and country approach to most problems. Many people knew the phrase, "A Lona rig", usually said with a quick wink and a knowing smile. A "Lona Rig" was a temporary fix that usually became permanent, and had this wonderful Rube Goldberg quality in its complexity.

For instance, if a gate were down in a fence, she would most likely bind it up with some bailing twin and barbed wire, until she could get around to fixing it right. She would never buy something that she could make, either.

She never bought a broom in her life, preferring to make them herself. I was always fascinated with the throw rugs that she used to make out of plastic bread bags. They were durable, yet lightweight and would last quite some time, and when worn out you simply disposed of them, having at least wrung a bit more usage out of the plastic before it hit the landfill.

Her ingenuity didn't stop with things you worked with, either. My big sister Jane remembers a time when Lona came to baby-sit her and my brother, I not having made the scene yet, and they wanted hamburgers to eat for lunch, but there were no buns to put the hamburgers on. With that slow smile of hers and her simple way of making things right, Lona said, "This is not a problem" and proceeded to make the largest biscuits my brother and sister had ever seen. They had hamburgers for lunch and I must assume that they were pretty good because nearly forty years later they still bring a smile to my sister's face when she tells the story.

I miss Lona terribly. I am comforted by the fact that I believe that Lona lived her life as she wanted and that she was happy and at peace with herself when she died.

I know that she had a good marriage with her husband Clarence, and that she loved him very much. Once while visiting with them, and this would have been after Clarence lost both of his legs to diabetes, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never heard these two people exchange a cross word between them.

So I asked them if they had ever had a fight, and what happened next was remarkable. They both suddenly got uncomfortable; fidgeting around in their seats, throwing embarrassed glances back and forth to each other. I remember thinking to myself that they looked like teenagers that had been caught doing something they shouldn't have. Finally, Clarence tossed a somewhat petulant glance at Lona and said, "You tell him, Lona".

What I heard then left me amazed at the time, and still leaves me wondering to this day when I think of it. You see, at that time, they had been married over 50 years together. And in all that time, they had had three arguments that had gotten bad enough that they wouldn't talk to each other for a day or two.

Lona told me the stories of those three arguments and what I found amazing was that they were still embarrassed after all these years that they had even had an argument. They acted like it should never have happened and that they were just ashamed that it had. I can't go home on vacation for a week without snipping at someone, and here were these people still fretting over three fights that had happened over 50 years, with the last being over twenty years before. Amazing.

If by reading this you have gotten to know Lona, even just a little, then I am very happy.

I wish everyone could have known her, could have shared in her inherent goodness. Was she perfect? Of course not, and I can see her laughing now at such a ridiculous suggestion.

What she was, was a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, farmhand, gardener, cow-milker, mid-wife, country doctor, and the thousand other things that make up the living, breathing person that is each one of us. What she was, was my friend.

I will miss her terribly.

(Stephen Gainer, the son of Paula Gainer Roberts, now lives in Boston. Steph_Gainer@comcast.net