JEREMY WALTNER – EDITOR & PUBLISHER
One short question.
That’s all it takes for Alice Graber to jump into a pool of thought and reflection — a spoken remembrance that lasts an awe-inspiring, uninterrupted 8 minutes and 56 seconds.
“What do you remember about Christmas growing up?”
But Alice doesn’t answer specifically; come to find out later in the interview that she actually doesn’t have a lot of specific memories about the most wonderful time of the year. What she does remember, however, is what she lives by every day — a Christian faith that has been her rock and continues to be that in this, her 100th year on earth. That’s what launches her into her 8 minute and 56-second escapade.
“It was just my brother and sister and me — that’s all that we had,” Alice says in her initial response to the question, and then explains that her father died when she was 9 years old of stomach ulcers that lead to a hemorrhage, and that her mother died when she was 14 of pneumonia. Her lifelong career in nursing that followed was made possible only by the generosity of people around her who helped along the way, including an aunt who invited her into their Beatrice, Neb. community where she got started in nursing school.
“I’ve had a rocky life, but the dear Lord has taken care of me all this time, and you tell me why I am here,” Alice says. “You tell me why. I don’t know? The Lord has been very gracious to me. Any time I have sat down and prayed my prayers have been answered.
“Just like when Jim all of a sudden said one night, ‘Will you go to South Dakota?’”
Jim — her husband to be.
Alice, born on Dec. 13, 1922 as Alice Rulla, explains that she had enrolled in nursing school at the time and had come to know a group of men conducting CPS (Civilian Public Service), an alternative to military service many conscientious objectors opted for during the war. Jim, whose given name was Wilbert Jim Graber, was among them and caught Alice’s eye — and she his. After all, he was one of the young men who asked her on a date.
“He was pretty handsome in that day,” Alice recalls. “I thought he’ll never ask me again, but my roommate said if does ask me again that I should go.”
He did, and over the next few months the two experienced a slow but sure courtship.
“It was no fast deal,” Alice says, but eventually, not only did Jim ask her to go with him to South Dakota, he gave her a ring before they left.
“Just like that,” she says. “And here I am.”
Alice and Jim were married on Nov. 4, 1944 in Sterling, Neb., and two years later established their life on the farm in Norway Township southeast of Freeman. Their firstborn, Sharon, came along in 1948, their second, Joan, died in infancy in 1950, and Tim was born a year later, in 1951.
Jim farmed, Alice worked as a registered nurse, the family attended the Salem-Zion Mennonite Church and life went on, as it does.
“We just kept going,” she says.
Sharon and Tim went on to start their own lives and their own families — Sharon married Keith Waltner and Tim married Carol Lapp — and before long Alice and Jim had seven grandchildren: Tim, Anne, Mary, Laura, Lisa, Karen and Tom, and eventually great-grandchildren came along and still are, “In twos and threes,” Alice says.
Alice and Jim celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in November of 2005, and Jim passed away the following February at the age of 89.
But Alice kept plugging along, continuing with her recertification and work locally as a registered nurse — a license she still carries — and eventually moved off the farm on which she and Jim raised their family and into an apartment at Dewald Street Village.
That’s where Alice lives today, independently and with the disposition — and memory — of somebody much younger. She regularly attends church and volunteers at the Et Cetera Shoppe twice weekly pricing clothing, which brings her a great deal of satisfaction.
“Ooh, I get the biggest bang out of that,” she says. “We take them out and think, ‘Who would wear this?’ I just get the biggest kick out it. My trouble is I see something and think, ‘Ooh, this is nice. I could wear this.’”
Alice also remains a paid part-time employee at Oakview Terrace and goes there daily from 5 to 6:30 p.m. to help feed the residents, walking to and from her Dewald Street Village apartment to the nursing home every time.
“At least I have something to do,” she says. “At least I have accomplished something.”
The understatement of the year.
Alice Rulla was 12 days old when she experienced her first Christmas. She will be 100 years and 12 days old on Sunday when another Christmas Day comes around. And other than attending church in the morning, she has no plans.
After all, as far as she’s concerned, the celebration has already taken place.
Friends and extended family gathered for an open house in honor of her centennial birthday late Saturday afternoon, Dec. 17 at the Prairie Arboretum visitor’s center.
“It was such a cold night, but people just kept coming,” Alice says. “It was like a dream, almost. Just a dream.”
The party continued last Sunday morning with a family brunch at the Dewald Street Village commons area and a late lunch at her son’s home that afternoon. After a short nap, Alice then visited the Christmas program at the St. Paul Lutheran Church, where several of her great-grandchildren attend, and then Sunday evening she went to the program at Salem-Zion featuring church choirs.
“It was just a coming and a going,” Alice said. “I was tired. I slept well.”
So how will she spend Christmas Day? She will attend church, of course, and will likely go help with the Christmas meal at Oakview Terrace, especially if that means some of the employees can have the day off for the holiday.
Alice will also probably look through the dozens of cards she received at Saturday’s open house and those that keep coming in the mail, many of which had yet-to-be-opened as of early this week.
Other than those activities, she has no plans.
“I feel like I have had Christmas already,” Alice says. “(This past weekend) was Christmas; goodness, all the kids came — what could be better?”
And she will most certainly be reminded of what Christmas represents — that faith that has anchored her for a century.
“To know that Christ was born and died for us,” Alice says, “that’s what this means.”