The outrages arrive with alarming regularity: the sacking of the FBI chief; the mounting evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; the leader of the free world finessing the NATO summit with the grace of a rhinoceros at a ballet recital.
It’s not hard to conclude that things have never been worse in America. But we have a secret weapon we use when whenever we feel overwhelmed with the daily barrage of bad news.
We think of Inez Alcorn.
Alcorn is a 97-year-old great-great grandmother who lives in St. Maries, Idaho. The first voice she ever heard on a radio was that of Al Smith, who ran for president against Herbert Hoover. Alcorn has vivid memories of the Great Depression when she was growing up as the daughter of Oklahoma sharecroppers.
“For two years we just traveled from one small sawmill to another,” she says. “We ate squirrels and rabbits and fish, and my mother made her own furniture.”
Alcorn is one of the dozens of women over 96 years old who shared their stories with us in recent months. The women, totaling 55, were born before women won the right to vote in 1920. They all voted for Hillary Clinton in last fall’s election and shared their excitement on a website we created commemorating what they (and we) hoped would be the historic election of a woman president.
Reeling in the days after November 8, we returned to these women for advice about how to face the nation’s now-uncertain future.
They delivered in ways we could not have imagined, providing hard-won wisdom and the kind of perspective that can come only from decades of life experience.
Think the sky is falling? Put yourself in the shoes of Sarah Puilani Young Ching, now 100. She was 25 and about to leave her Honolulu home for church on a Sunday morning in 1941 when she suddenly heard noises overhead. “Planes were above us,” she recalls, “and I remember the ratatatat of gunfire.”
Surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor, she worked during the war as an Army secretary and went on to become a preschool teacher and short-order cook. Her advice for hard times: “Never give up. You can accomplish the impossible if you try.”
Harriet Terry Cohen, 98, recalls how during World War II everyone had to do their part to help the country. She had never been away from home in New York when she joined the Red Cross. The organization sent her by train across the country and on to serve on the Pacific island of Saipan.
Her advice: “You can’t let your feelings of fear overwhelm you. You must deal with life as it happens.”
Elizabeth Pula, 98, remembers enduring the Great Depression, never knowing where the next meal was coming from. Her grandmother fed her soup—“nothing but potatoes and water.” The worst part, she says, was not knowing when her poverty might end. The key to her survival? “We all felt like we were in it together.”
Again and again, we heard similar reminiscences about national unity, a stark reminder of how divided the country is now.
Margaret Schneider, 105, had to take a job in a sewing factory after her father died when she was in sixth grade. She recalled her mother’s advice: “Keep praying for better days ahead, work hard, and help others in worse shape than me.”
Velva Stone, 103, advised young people: “Act, don’t mope. Think positive and act positive.”
And Florence Taub Stein, 100, shared a nugget that has served us well over these past few months: “It’s very important for people to keep a sense of humor. It helps no matter how bad things get.”
What surprised us most wasn’t the women’s wisdom, but their sheer defiance. In the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat, we felt sad for these women who had held on for so long, only to see the first female major-party presidential candidate go down in such a shocking way.
These women weren’t having any of our pity. Instead, they repeatedly voiced a sense of resilience and a resolve to stay engaged.
“I would love to push my walker into mass protests against the stupid wall and other mindless actions proposed for the next four years,” said Stone. “Follow me!”
Then there was Beatrice Lumpkin, a longtime activist who at 98 had no plans to wallow in defeat. “Don’t waste time grieving,” she said. “We older people will help you turn our country around.”
That kind of grit might seem surprising in women with nine or ten decades of life behind them. But what we heard consistently was a bold determination to stay engaged, however bleak things might appear. Julia Cook, 101, from Pasadena, California, might have put it best. “Keep moving forward,” she said, “and remember that bad times come and they go.”