A Century of Guiding Light
Story and Photography by Laurie McCall
Charlie Tyler, Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator for St. Luke Missionary Hospice, called the Pink office about a month ago to tell us about a very special lady who was approaching 102 years old and had quite a story to tell about growing up in a lighthouse in upstate New York.
Having a love and respect for the stories of our elders and the wisdom they possess, I knew I wanted to meet Ms. Olive “Ollie” Hoag, and it was indeed an honor just to sit by her side and listen as she shared her memories. Several days after our visit, she passed away.
One of the first things I noticed when I entered Ms. Ollie’s room was a typewriter—a woman after my own heart. Charlie said it was her dream to write her memoir, and she’d been working on parts of it for some time. Her sudden passing came as a surprise, even at 101 she seemed more like a woman in her 80s whose mind was altogether clear. Perhaps sharing these stories were part of her transition.
Born in 1916, Ms. Ollie grew up on Crossover Island, which is a part of New York state's Thousand Islands. Her father ran the lighthouse, and she and her family were the only people on the island. As Ms. Ollie said, “The lighthouse is part of me. It makes me different from everybody else.” I asked what she meant by that, how it had made her different. “My principles, the things I learned from my parents.” She went on to tell me that her father had learned to read from McGuffey Readers, which “not only taught you how to read, they taught you how to treat people, how to be kind and thoughtful, what to say and what not to say.”
Beacon No. 1 Navigating Life: Teaching your children boundaries equals respect. I know sometimes when children visit older folks, going through their drawers might seem like a treasure hunt, but that was the exact sort of thing that Ms. Ollie didn’t care for.
Charlie chimed in, “She is different. She brings the later 18th century into the 21st century. She stays consistent with her life, her goals and her own compass. She knows what her true north is, and stays true to that.”
Ms. Ollie and her seven siblings grew up on the island without any running water or electricity. “To go to the bathroom, you had to run across the backyard, down a flight of stairs with no railing, and into the boathouse. If you made it, you were lucky,” Ms. Ollie laughed.
They fished for dinner, and everything was made from scratch, from mayonnaise to cakes.
By 7:00 A.M., her dad would say, “Get up,” and the sheets were up before he was done talking. By 8:00 they had all washed, eaten breakfast, mom had made everyone lunch, and dad was waiting in the boat. After the frigid ride, they scrambled onto the dock and walked the rest of the way to school, crossing a field and then a meadow, often being chased all the way to the barbed wire fence by Papa Cow, a mean old bull.
Beacon No. 2: Our modern conveniences have made us soft. “My father used to say, ‘You can do what you want to do, if you want to do it bad enough.’ If you don’t have what you need, make it, or make do without it,” Ms. Ollie said.
Sometimes as Ms. Ollie spoke, she would close her eyes, so she could see her memories. “After school, I’d run in the house at 4:30 and smell homemade bread and supper cooking on the stove. Smelled so good. I can see that kitchen today.”
Other times when she closed her eyes, I could see the sadness on her face and hear it in the strain of her voice. I can only imagine the amount of heartache and loss one experiences in 101 years of living, and I hope it has been equaled by the amount of goodness and love she received. She told me about a lonesome classmate in school named Jackie she will never forget. “His mother didn’t want him, and he knew it. His father didn’t have time. So, they brought him to his sister to take care of, and she got paid for it. He was a quiet, little fellow, never had anyone to play with.” She told me about a time the teacher stood four boys up in front of the class and began asking them questions. “I think the word was ‘shipment.’ Jackie’s tongue got tangled and he said ‘shitment.’ The kids started laughing, and the teacher didn’t know Jackie was a sensitive child. Then she came around behind him and gave him a rap on the head with a book. He didn’t want to cry, but he did. About a week later, my father picked his him up out of the bottom of the river. He was convinced no one loved him, and it was a terribly lonely world. So, he put an end to it.”
Beacon No. 3: Always be loving, and kind and compassionate because you never know what other people are going through.
Ms. Ollie had three children. So, of course I asked her for some wisdom on parenting.
Beacon No. 4: “Patience Dear, patience. One thing I didn’t do—when they were little I could kiss every inch of their bodies they were so cute, but the older they got, the less I did. It wasn’t long, even before they went to school, that I quit kissing them. Never stop kissing your kids. Hug them and kiss them every day because they are only little for a while. They are grown for a lot longer than they are kids.”
When asked what the best part about living so long, she said it was having great-great grandchildren.
Beacon No. 5: Go visit your elders as often as possible, and bring the babies. Listen to their stories and absorb as much wisdom and knowledge as you can. They are living history. Whatever you’re going to face, they’ve been through it and survived. They can tell you things Siri can’t.
At 43 years old, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, and I asked Ms. Ollie what she thought about that.
Beacon No. 6: “I never did find out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was married with kids and had a plumbing business in my back yard. Stay young as long as you can. Stay on your feet. Keep living. Keep moving.”
Those were our last words, and I’d have never guessed Ms. Ollie wouldn’t be around to be signing autographs in the new year.
Beacon No. 7 (which is Ms. Ollie’s final lesson): “Show people love every chance you get because you never know when it will be your last chance.”
Old School Skills: Ms. Ollie used to make rugs by hand. One of her rugs is still in the lighthouse.
Carrying the Torch: Ms. Ollie met the people who currently live in the lighthouse. “She loves me. She calls me just to talk. She still calls. They came here to see me.”
A Century of Changes: (When asked what changes she has seen in her lifetime) “Everything has been invented except for the wheel.” ause you never know when it will be your last chance.”