Last week I went back to the midwest to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday. Here she is as a very small child in front of the famous Chicago Water Tower. Jane Plamondon Ripley was born into a manufacturing family in 1911, and I believe she was the first grandchild (if not, the others lived in Michigan, so she was the first one at home). Her grandparents, Charles and Mary Plamondon were leading citizens of the boomtown that was Chicago at the turn of the last century, and when they went down on the Lusitania, their funerals brought hundreds of people out to line the streets. Jane spent her winters in Chicago, and her summers on the farm where she currently lives with my aunt, her youngest daughter Molly.
Riding was my grandmother’s passion, and the last ten years or so have been really hard for her. She had a hip replaced at 91 in hopes she could sit astride again (and when she couldn’t, she told us all she’d just go back to sidesaddle. She’d won plenty of horseshow classes sidesaddle as a girl.) She was also a crack polo player, back when polo was a hugely popular public sport. She’s the one in the center in this photo. In 1932, 30,000 people took the train out to Lake Forest, the suburb in which I grew up, to watch the eastern polo elite be soundly defeated by a team of western polo players led by Will Rogers. But my grandmother couldn’t play to the extent she would have liked, because she was a girl. As she once told me “I had to wait for one of them to get hurt, then I could play practice matches.”
We adored my grandmother when we were kids. She’s not a typical grandmother — she was never particularly warm, and she couldn’t cook at all (she’s famous for giving most of us food poisoning at one point or another), but she was fun and creative and liked to go do things. Plus she’d give us beebee guns to play with. When I was eight she came to stay with us for a winter because she’d broken a leg snowmobiling in Michigan (a consequence of having lost an eye in her early 50s). She was one of the first Americans into big China, on a goodwill trip with the Chicago Farmer’s Association, with whom she also toured Russia a few years later (when both countries were thoroughly Communist). She worked in various capacities at the Francis Parker School (which she also attended) for something like 60 years, and after she retired from Parker for the last time, she started a lending library in her small farm town so she’d have something to do every day.
It’s only been in the last four years or so that she’s really slowed down. Both her sight and her hearing aren’t great, and it’s taking her longer and longer to remember things, but she’s still all there. Living as long as she has is not for sissies — the hip she didn’t have replaced causes her considerable pain, and it’s really difficult for someone who was that athletic to be largely housebound. But she’s in a town where everyone knows her, and on the farm with Molly and her husband John (who wins a medal for his patience with her) as well as my cousin Jason and his wife Jackie and baby Riley. I’ve always been one of her favorites, and it was a good position to be in. She encouraged me every time I wanted to go off and do something, whether it was spend a winter teaching English in Taiwan or run off to be a raft guide. She’s always been my biggest fan, and the feeling is entirely mutual. So off I went to Leland in January where we kept it simple. A little dinner and some chocolate cake for a 100 year old woman who loves chocolate and who loved all of us to the best of her abilities.