First Born

My great-aunt lived in three centuries. She remembered seeing her first automobile. “It was such a novelty. I never thought I’d actually get a ride in one,” she said. She lived through ten popes and twenty presidents.

Born in St. Paul, in 1894, Sister Esther was the oldest of eight girls. Her parents moved to Madelia, where she spent most of her childhood. At 107, she was the oldest of more than four thousand School Sisters of Notre Dame worldwide. She died in Mankato on September 22, 2002. Her youngest sisters, twins, are the only siblings still alive: Olivia Nelson of St. James and Otillia Erber of Austin, Minnesota.

Back in the sixties, when I was growing up, I remember my entire family going to the convent in Pipestone to visit my dad’s aunt. We must have been quite a sight: Mom, Dad, and five kids—seven of us dropping by to say hello. All the other nuns would come and see us, too. And Sister Esther always made sure that we got cookies and milk.

It had been years since I had the opportunity to visit Sister Esther. Last summer, I went to see her with my sister and brother. Five minutes after we checked in at the convent, Sister Esther came strolling in with her walker on wheels, which everyone called “the Cadillac.” Attached was a basket, where she kept her Bible and a few other items. Sister Esther still pedaled an exercise bicycle and enjoyed doing crafts. She kept busy reading, solving crossword puzzles, and writing letters.

We explained that we were Margaret’s grandchildren. Margaret was her sister, and my dad’s mother. I told her I’d been reading about her in national publications and more recently in the book Aging With Grace. Sister Esther was part of an ongoing project known as the Nun Study, started in 1986 and headed by Dr. David Snowdon, author of Aging With Grace. She’s one of 678 nuns donating their brains to a long-term study of Alzheimer’s disease, as scientists explore why some people get the disease and others don’t.

In his book, Dr. Snowdon mentions that when he started his research, Sister Esther was 92 and told him she was too busy to be in a study about old people. Someone asked her when she was going to retire and she said, “I retire every night.” My cousin exchanged letters with Sister Esther over the years. She said, “In one of her letters from Montana, she told me that she was going to retire and move back to the convent in Mankato so that she could take care of the old people. She was 98 at that time.”

In recent years, the family would gather to celebrate her three-figure birthdays. Just before the turn of the millennium, on December 29, 1999, Sister Esther celebrated her 105th. There was a large turnout of family and friends. The twins, then 89, were wearing matching outfits. “You two look so cute,” my sister Beth said to them. “Sister Esther gets upset if we don’t dress alike,” Olivia said.

On September 26, 2002, in the chapel on Good Counsel Hill in Mankato, the nuns sang like angels as they put Sister Esther to rest. Her twin sisters were there, perfectly matched with soft teal jackets and pants and white embroidered knit shirts.

Dr. Snowdon was there too. My sister chatted with him. “So what’s the key to a long life?” she asked. “Exercise, fruits and vegetables, and keeping active,” he said. In the next two or three years, he would be studying Sister Esther’s brain, and would probably publish the results in another book. It would include his findings from more than a dozen other nuns who became centenarians and have passed away in recent years. Olivia, now 91, has her own theories about longevity. She told me she kidded Sister Esther that she lived so long because “she didn’t have a man to worry about.”

Fortunately, Sister Esther didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s. Still, her memory in the past couple of years wasn’t as good as it used to be. As we left the convent that afternoon last summer, she asked us again how we were related to her. “Margaret’s grandchildren,” we repeated. “You’ll have to come back another day,” she laughed, “and see if I remember who you are.”