Friends for a century: Two women, who are almost 101, form unique bond

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"We're old-timers," Elvira Blank exclaimed as she smiled at one of her best friends.

Viola Larson's eyes sparkled as she agreed with Elvira. The two were sitting next to each other at a dining room table at Grand Arbor.

Elvira and Viola go back a few years. In fact, they have been friends all their lives.

All 100 years.

Yes, you read that right — 100 years.

My day was made better that Thursday afternoon when I sat down to interview these two beautiful women, who not only grew up together but have remained friends for an entire century.

Elvira, who is sharp as a tack, lives in Miltona with her son, while Viola is a resident at Grand Arbor. We were in a private dining room at Grand Arbor, a retirement facility in Alexandria, waiting for Viola to come join us when Elvira told me she would turn 101 on Oct. 3 while her friend wouldn't be 101 until next July.

Without any hesitation, Elvira said Viola's birthday is July 17, then gave me a sly wink and said, "I can remember birthdays."

As Viola was brought into the room, her eyes lit up upon seeing Elvira. She wasn't sure why we were in a private dining room. Viola's mind, at times, isn't quite as sharp as it once was. But as she was pushed up to the table in her wheelchair, Voila reached out her hand and patted Elvira's arm, and a warm smile came across both of their faces.

They were reunited once again and between the hearty laughter, wrinkly smiles and loud "whats" — both are hard of hearing — the next hour and a half made my heart so incredibly happy.

A blossoming friendship

One was born in 1917, the other in 1918. They grew up as neighbors in the country, on farms between Alexandria and Carlos.

"Country living is better than in the big city. It's hard to raise children in the big city," Viola loudly proclaimed, as she looked at Elvira and said, "Isn't that right?"

"That's right," Elvira said, shaking her head in agreement.

The two ladies, who graduated together in 1937, went to the same elementary school and each had to walk about a mile to get there. For Elvira, walking through the woods and pastures was the biggest nature lesson she got and the best exercise.

Viola chimed in, stating matter-of-factly, "Our teacher had a boyfriend."

It was fun watching these two aging beauties turn into their childhood selves as they giggled and shared stories about their teacher, who apparently ended up marrying her boyfriend.

As they were finishing their conversation, Elvira added, "She was stretched fit to kill," referring to the shape of her teacher's body. And once more, the two giggled as they remembered the beauty of a teacher they had back in the day.

Memories of their 15-minute recesses were brought up, as well as how the boys would go out and build snow forts and then hang their clothes around a barrel stove to dry.

"They were naughty sometimes," Elvira said of the boys in their class. Viola belly-laughed and agreed.

Elvira asked if Viola remembered the coat rooms and it was almost as if the two women were transported back in time. They couldn't stop smiling as they recalled how the boys had their own coat room on the right and the girls on the left.

Although I had questions prepared for the interview, it became obvious early on that letting the two friends talk and reminisce would be more beneficial — and rewarding. So at times I just sat back, listened intently and took notes as the two shared stories from 100 years.

Bygone days

Their school's library brought back fond memories. Elvira recalled a stove in the library, although neither could remember if it was gas or kerosene. But the library was stocked with dishes, including cups and plates and cookware. Students would each bring the items needed and then they would all cook their lunches, such as corn soup, together.

"We would cook our own lunches. Remember that, Viola?" Elvira said.

"Oh yes!" Viola answered.

The two talked about how some boys would quit school to help out on the family farm. They talked about their Christmas programs at school and how they enjoyed the practices much more than the actual performances.

They talked about birthday parties, how Elvira's mom made the best chocolate cake, how Viola's mom loved to dance so they would "put the old Victrola on" and all the fun they had growing up together.

They talked about their eighth-grade graduation and how Viola's grandmother made her a pink organza dress and Elvira's mother made her a peach one, and they talked about their heritage and how Elvira was "all Swede" and Viola was "half Swede and half German."

Swimming at the beach on Lake L'Homme Dieu was another highlight. Many girls didn't know how to swim because their mothers didn't swim, so they were never taught.

"But oh, we had a lot of fun at the lake. Those were the hot, dry years," Elvira said, before Viola quickly turned the subject to sports.

"Baseball was important, wasn't it?" she asked Elvira.

"Oh yes it was."

They were both baseball fans and as adults they followed the Minnesota Twins.

Topics were easily changing as memories came flooding back. Viola asked Elvira about shopping by mail from the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. Elvira looked me squarely in the eye and asked softly, "Do you know what the catalog pages were used for?"

I shrugged and shared the story of my mom telling me about how she used catalog pages for rolling tobacco for her homemade cigarettes. They both got a chuckle out that.

"No, it wasn't for tobacco," Elvira said. "We used it in the outhouse, for toilet paper."

That drew a round of laughter, before Elvira said sadly, "Young kids will never know what we mean by that."

As more and more memories emerged from their minds and gushed out of their mouths, they remembered all of the people — friends, classmates, family members — they've lost over the years.

One would ask if so-and-so was still living or did you hear so-and-so passed away. During short, quiet moments, each would reflect on the special people in their lives who have passed on, before the conversation would liven up again.

As for turning 100, Viola's secret to a long life was traveling, saying you can learn from your travels and it keeps you young. Elvira felt keeping busy was also important, as well as keeping up with the news. Both insisted on keeping life simple, having fun and said to "enjoy life as long as you can."

The key components to a long friendship, they said, is to never get mad and never hold a grudge. Then they took a stab at why they have hit it off all these years.

Viola's favorite things about Elvira are that she makes life interesting, doesn't get depressed and has a big personality. Elvira said of her friend that, "Viola is just Viola and that's who she is. And I love her to death!"