Emma Burleigh, my mother-in-law, celebrated her 100th birthday on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. More than five years ago, as she was approaching her 95th, she agreed to move in with us, declaring that, considering her frail health, she would surely die soon.
But she surprised herself. She moved in, and then, true to the longevity of her Enneking genes, she has lived five and a half years beyond her prediction. Best of all, until just a few weeks ago she retained her mental acuity. She was able to enjoy her gala 100th with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, and nephews gathered round.
When Emma was born in 1898, McKinley was president and the Spanish-American War had not even begun. By the time I met Emma, she was already sixty-five, a dignified, energetic, attractively plump motherly woman with white curly hair. She was and is a woman of faith and fortitude.
Her life has spanned one of the most pivotal and violent centuries in history. Her century has also brought forth some of history’s greatest heroes and saints. If I could live over again my years with Emma, in which she has taught me so much, I would urge her to speak more of her memories of her era. That sort of verbalization, however, has not been her way: Unlike many older people—my own parents, for example—Emma has reminisced very little. Hers has been a quiet way, quiet but active, her world contained by family and home, church and neighborhood. Her loyalties and duties, which she has carried out impeccably, have been directed toward the things that most rightly and naturally engage the human heart. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, Emma’s path has been the little way, a concentration on localizations and details—in short, some of the choicest incarnations of our existence.
A life like Emma’s seems ordinary—and it is. That is the beauty of it: an ordinary life lived faithfully and competently. If most people could live such a life for a few years, they might be successful, both in human and spiritual terms. But Emma has been living her faithful little way for 100 years. Those 100 years are one-twentieth of the time since Christ, one-twentieth of Christian history. One-twentieth of history is a fraction big enough to make a difference. One-twentieth multiplied by more than one life makes a huge difference. In God’s terms, of course, any fraction at all makes a difference.
Emma has not been like a lady we know, age 103, who says she hopes to live until the year 2000 so that she can say she has lived in three centuries. Emma, on the contrary, did not want to live to be 100. She has been a widow, after all, for twenty-one years. A century, however, has been the Lord’s gift to her and to her family. Following her little way, she has taught us the virtue of steadfastness, of patience, of responsibility to the life she has been given. Even as her mind has wandered in and out during these recent weeks, she still responds with “thank you” when we do things for her, and she still recites the Rosary and her favorite prayer, the Memorare, without missing a word.
At one point during these weeks of being bedridden, Emma almost died. For two days her gaze riveted constantly on something above her; she prayed constantly, indicating that she wanted us to pray with her. Something like a holy hush descended over the house. But even after 100 years the end was not yet. The angel left, apparently, to await another day, leaving Emma to plod a little further on her little way, to attend a little longer to those of us she has mothered for so long, even as, for the last five or ten years, we have mothered her.
Every life is a providential link in a chain, Cardinal Newman said. A life as long as Emma’s is a spectacular link. No matter how ordinary her life seemed to her and perhaps to others as well, her very presence for 100 years is a revelation that God has a plan for each of us and that he never abandons us. How much in need we must have been that the Lord has shown his hand in history so long through Emma.
One-twentieth of Christian his-tory; nearly one-half of American history since the first Fourth of July; nearly one-fourth of American history since the first settlers arrived: such is the span, the gift of one woman of the little way. Yet that little way, seen by the Lord’s measure of love of God and neighbor, turns out to be the great way.