I have to confess that at first I didn’t think much of Evalena Smith’s idea for a story about her and her siblings. The Columbus woman had called and later stopped by the office to talk about her family. There are five of them, two brothers and three sisters.
They’re up in years — the youngest 78 and the eldest 89 — and Evalena thought it noteworthy that all had made it that long and stayed together as a family. Each of them also had long marriages. They’ve been wedded to the same spouses for more than a half century — 57 to 64 years.
I’m afraid that my initial reaction to all of these numbers was, well, no reaction at all. I was looking for a “hook,” something unusual or noteworthy that would set this story apart.
Mortality rates have pushed further back the ages at which a long life is deemed extraordinary. Reaching the century mark no longer is considered rare. A couple of decades ago, we would have reported it on the front page of the newspaper when a local resident celebrated a 100th birthday. Today, it seldom gets more than a passing mention in a column of social briefs.
The same goes for long marriages. I’ll have to admit that marriages sustained over periods ranging from 57 to 64 years are pretty impressive, but not extraordinary.
I told Evalena that I would give her idea for a story some thought and get back in touch, but in reality I just didn’t see anything there.
Over the next few days, however, I kept coming across the papers that Evalena had left with me and the photo of the five siblings at a recent get-together. Somewhere in the process I realized there was something truly unique about this story.
Here were five individuals who had lived long lives, enjoyed long marriages and stayed together as a family. I’m not sure that anyone keeps track of all three of those elements, but I suspect that the five kids of the late Pliny (Shortie) and Annetta Poffenberger represent a rare breed.
I thought of my own siblings and our lifespans. There were six of us. One died in infancy. The oldest was killed in World War II, and the one closest to me in age passed away at 36. Three of us made it past 70, a sister dying at 82, a brother at 75. I’m the only one of my immediate family left.
There’s nothing unusual about our story. In fact, it can be considered a typical situation. To go through 78 to 89 years of living, on the other hand, and to do it alongside the brothers and sisters you grew up with strikes me as truly remarkable — almost a blessing.
That the Poffenbergers did it in the time frame of their generation adds to the uniqueness. As young children they experienced the Great Depression. As young adults they lived through World War II.
In a letter to one of her grandchildren, Betty Sweeney described the Depression of the 1930s and how their family adapted.
“Daddy worked at any type of job he could find. Since we did not have a car, he rode his bicycle wherever the work happened to be. I remember one time the temperature plunged during the day, and he came home with very badly frostbitten ears because his cap did not have ear flaps and he had ridden three or four miles.”
Her older brother, Dick Wayman, (Annetta’s son by an earlier marriage who was adopted by Pliny) went into service during World War II, enlisting in what was then called the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a tail gunner on a bomber stationed in Italy. “He flew on missions over Germany and was shot at but never hit,” his sister wrote.
Central to each of their lives were their parents. Writing about the Depression and the war, Betty observed, “Those were difficult years, but we all remember them as being happy. We were all educated, had good jobs and have been married to the same spouses. We have raised good, educated families, even though life had its difficult start because of the Great Depression. As long as our parents lived, they were so proud of their family and especially proud that they never had to ask for any kind of government help.”
Her brother, Scott Poffenberger, put their success in life and marriage even more succinctly. “It was the way we were taught,” he said.
It turns out that Evalena Smith had a pretty good story to tell after all.