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Island centenarian Eleanor Garrish: 1916 to 2016

Editor’s note: Island centenarian, Eleanor Garrish, died Oct. 23. She did not want a funeral, but her son, Jim Garrish, who took care of her for the last few years, elected to write this eulogy, which was printed in the December/Winter issue of the Ocracoke Observer.

Eleanor Garrish and her son, Jim, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.. Photo by C. Leinbach

Eleanor Garrish and her son, Jim, on the occasion of her 100th birthday in January of this year. Photo by C. Leinbach

By Jim Garrish

Eleanor Mae Garrish, my mother, passed away in her Ocracoke home early on the morning of Oct. 23.

She was just under three months shy of her 101st birthday and had for some time been Ocracoke’s oldest resident. She always talked comfortably and clearly about mortality and her preferences in the aftermath of her death, one of which was that there be no memorial service.

I shall honor that wish and nothing should be read into it beyond the fact that I believe the departed should be able to call some of the shots, even after they are gone.

My mother’s life, and the occasion of her 100th birthday, was the subject of earlier Ocracoke

Observer articles which she very much enjoyed and appreciated.

Briefly, she was born on a working family farm in southwest Minnesota the year before the United States entered World War I.

As the oldest of five children, she plowed fields behind a team of horses and taught for several years in one room school houses.  During the Depression, she moved to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and later found secretarial work.

After she moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1946, she met my father, Willard “Jake” Garrish, an Ocracoke native who had elected to stay in the Navy after the war, on Waikiki Beach.

They were married in Yuma, Arizona, in 1948, and my mother visited Ocracoke for the first time that year.

My parents established a home in Maryland when my father was transferred to shore duty and my mother began a long career as a head secretary in the Maryland school system.

In 1976, they made Ocracoke their full-time residence. My mother enjoyed life here and was for many years an active member of the Methodist Church, a volunteer at the museum and with the Ocracoke quilters.

Eleanor Garrish on Ocracoke.

Eleanor Garrish on Ocracoke.

Some of my favorite memories of her quiet life on Ocracoke might not be known to others.

They include the care she gave my father during his final months while she was in her 80s, which notably included her administering peritoneal dialysis in their home as long as she could.

There was the time that, when the Ocracoke Clinic assessed that it was urgent that she be seen for a condition that led to a stent being implanted, she insisted on driving her trusty Ford Ranger home first to get the clothes off the clothesline before “being carried off” by helicopter.

For the longest time, she considered purchase of a raincoat unnecessary and extravagant because it only took a few seconds to get between a house or building and a car: a newspaper over her head was good enough for that.

While she likely never did a “workout,” she always believed you had to keep moving as long as you could and one of the few things she ever asked me to buy for her was a collection of polka tapes, which she would put on and dance to solo around her living room.

There was her lifelong sweet tooth, which will always be reflected in her eating ice cream on her last afternoon in life.

I don’t think my mom’s life qualifies as extraordinary, but I do think it interesting and admirable, particularly for a woman of her generation. In a memorable year in the nation’s life, I think of the many things she and/or the nation experienced/weathered/outlived in the last 100 years: wars, electrification, assassinations, the advent of radio/TV/the internet, Depression and recession, air travel, globalization, three marriages to name some of the more notable things.

She persevered through many events, ups and downs, and transitions in her own life. She was a person with strong political leanings but seldom expressed them to others, always believing that others should be listened to and considered, that sanctimonious righteousness was usually offensive, that things often weren’t black and white, and that people’s character and contributions to the community weren’t tied to their politics or the church of their choice.

Eleanor 3 001

Eleanor and Jake Garrish

I was fortunate to be her caretaker and have learned that care taking isn’t easy, can be draining and requires adapting to changing conditions.

With that said, I want to single out and thank the following for the support, help, and friendship they provided over the years.  I think my mother would agree with these thoughts.

–Shirley Helms, my cousin, who not only shared off island trips with my mother for hurricane evacuations but who bought countless cans of Progresso soup, pears and apricots for us.

–Annie Mann, who took care of my mother for several brief periods but more importantly has cared for other elderly Ocracoke residents for much longer periods. The island is lucky to have her and I appreciate the wisdom she shared with me.

–Cindy Hitchens, Linda Scarborough and Jen Esham. As Mom’s mental alertness declined and conversation became more difficult, these three ladies continued to visit frequently until the end and she always enjoyed those visits. Additional thanks to Cindy for orchestrating the larger group of island ladies who made my morn’s last birthday (in January) so special.

–Calvin Hanrahan, whose physical therapy sessions kept her mobile, improved her endurance and reduced fall vulnerability. Simply put, he is an island treasure.

–Ingeborg Frye, who cared for my mom for an extended period during her last years and always responded during critical times. She and my mom established a close rapport, and my mother  felt  more  comfortable  expressing  her thoughts  and  concerns  to Ingeborg  than  anyone, as well as always taking great interest in her colorful shoes and clothing. Ingeborg shared that last ice cream with my mom. I will forever be in her debt for the care and friendship she gave my mother.

–My cousin Ben O’Neal, who provided great help to both my parents during their times of need while I was not here. He transported my mother off the island on many occasions, even while helping his own parents, the late neighbors Mickey and Conk.

Eleanor and Ben were even ticketed for not wearing their seat belts on one of those trips. Although she always expressed her wish that “he would do something about those pants,” it is testimony to how highly she appreciated Ben that he was the only person who she could always identify .and call by name even to the end, even after she would call me by different names on occasion.

–Last and not least, thanks to you, Mom, for everything you did for me and others during your life. During the 30 plus years when I saw you infrequently, your prolific letter writing always kept me abreast of what was happening with you and my father.

Thanks for taking such good care of yourself, organizing your affairs well, and telling me what you wanted in the final stage of life. Thanks for being you.

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