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Early in 1987, my mother, Florence Van Stockum, then living in San Diego, informed me that Dad was failing and difficult for her to look after. I persuaded them to come to Shelby County to live with us, which they did with reluctance, leaving many close friends in California.
Late in 1988, Dad died at the age of 98. In concentrating on my remarkable mother, I don’t want to overlook Dad, a handsome, hard-working Hollander whose devotion to me as his adopted child was exceptional.
When I returned safely from the Pacific in 1945, he gave me his most prized possession, a 1941 Roadmaster Buick.
A few years later, in 1994, Florence celebrated her 100th birthday and was feted by her PEO sorority in Louisville for that somewhat rare accomplishment.
Her life changed in 1998, when she had a stress fracture of the leg and had to be moved to the Crestview Health Care Center, where she spent the rest of her long life, six more years, actively traversing its halls with her walker, encouraging all the patients, counseling members of the staff, almost performing a role as social organizer.
During her time at Crestview my Mother met dozens of Shelby County residents who were visiting members of their families. She left lasting impressions, of which I mention a few.
Duanne Puckett, former editor of The Sentinel-News and currently the community relations manager for Shelby County Public Schools, remarked that Florence was always gracious to members of visiting students’ groups, once opening their eyes by claiming to have visited Japan, climbed Mount Everest and set foot on the moon – explaining that she only read non-fiction books, which took her anywhere she wanted to go.
This reminded me of a ditty I learned in grade school:
"With a book upon our knees, we can travel at our ease,
Visit hot Nigeria, cold Siberia, old Algeria, too.
We can navigate Cape Horn, any cold September morn."
Colonel Ben Pollard described his impression:
“She is simply delightful. Full of life, reads constantly, but must live in a nursing home because she has fallen several times. I had many visits and phone calls with her and she always made my day – a true lady!”
I have heard several versions of a short conversation, such as this. “Mrs. Van Stockum, where did you get your accent?”
Response: “I have no accent. You are the one with an accent. I speak the King’s English.”
Dr. Paul Sherman, who treated Florence on several occasions, once asked her if she had been watching the races on TV. Her response was that she had tuned in once but was upset to see the horses being beaten and had not watched again.
She obviously recalled how families in England in WWI had donated their horses to pull wagons and caissons and to provide mounts for the cavalry. In 1914, at the beginning of the war, the British Army possessed about 25,000 horses. By 1917 more than half a million were in service, many of them procured in the United States.
Horses shared in the slaughter of the battles in France, and, after the war, memorials were erected to recognize their service. One, at the Church of St. Jude, London, bears this inscription: “Most obediently and often most painfully they died – faithful unto death.”
In October 2004, shortly after her 110th birthday, which marked her among the 50-plus oldest persons in the world and the oldest ever recorded in Shelby County, Florence developed a serious problem.
Her esophagus was not functioning properly, and she was not able to receive nourishment through the mouth. Her doctor recommended the insertion of a feeding tube, patiently explaining this procedure to her, pointing out that it was common, entirely effective, and was already being used by several patients at Crestview.
In response, Florence asserted several times that she did not want to undergo this procedure and wished to be allowed to die.
She was completely rational and made this decision herself, leaving no doubt as to her desires.
Rather than the week’s duration that doctors had predicted, she continued to live for several months, to the astonishment of her physician, carefully and patiently taking liquids and some soft food by mouth.
An exclusive club
In February 2005, I read a front page article in the Wall Street Journal, headed “This Exclusive Club Has One Requirement: 110 Birthday Candles.”
This “club” was constituted of all individuals, designated “supercentenarians,” more than 110 years old, world wide, whose age had been documented by the Gerontology Research Group (GRG).
I contacted Stephen Coles, M.D., Ph.D, at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, head of this organization, and provided him with the detailed documentation about my mother, including her birth certificate.
She was readily admitted to the GRG rolls, as the 53rd oldest person on their list of “Validated Living Supercentenarians.”
The Wall Street Journal recently quoted from a GRG source that “about 800 million people, or less than one-eighth of the world’s population, live in places that, at the turn of last century, had birth records reliable enough to be trusted.”
I find this extract from an article in the New York Times of Aug. 14, 2010 to be pertinent:
“A woman thought to be Tokyo’s oldest, who would be 113, was last seen in the 1980’s. Another woman, who would be the oldest in the world at 125, is also missing, and has probably been for some time. When city officials tried to visit her at her registered address, they discovered that the site had been turned into a city park, in 1981.”
Happy in the end
The GRG made arrangements for a photographer to visit her on April 23, 2005, to take a photo for a book about Supercentenarians, but Florence declined.
As it turned out, she was entirely lucid that day, less than 10 days before her death. During a meaningful conversation, almost her last words, she whispered to me that she had spent the happiest time of her life living in Shelby County.
On May 2, 2005, Florence’s resolve not to “go gently into the night” was overcome, and she died peacefully at the age of 110 years, six months.
Many in our county still recall with pleasure their visits with her.