Sometimes you come across a person who has lived life large. Elsie Anna Byrne was one such woman.
She was born on a farm in Baraga, but as a young woman just prior to World War II she ventured hundreds of miles away to Detroit where she worked in an aircraft factory assembling wiring harnesses. There she met her husband, calling herself “lucky to have found such a good man.” When he died early and unexpectedly in his 50s, she decided to return home and buy the family farm, where she continued to raise her two high school aged children on her own.
When pressed to explain what else was so special about her besides being highly independent, the Little Brothers interns and volunteers who visited her paused for a moment and seemed to travel inward to that place reserved for fond memories.
“Her big smile,” recalled Fabian, one of our interns from Germany. “I will always remember her with a big smile on her face, rocking on that rocker.” He admitted that sometimes social visits can feel a little awkward, full of small talk about the weather or medical ailments. But with Elsie, he said, “I felt a connection to her right away. She took a real interest in my life, was happy to help me think through which college I should go to when I return to Germany. She shared her pictures with me of a trip she had taken to Germany, and made connections to my life there, asking me all about my family back home. She really enjoyed helping me make decisions about my life.”
“She commiserated with you when you were feeling down, and took a great interest in whatever you were doing,” said Sharon Ecklund, one of our long-time volunteers.
Irene, our intern from Spain, agreed. “On one of my visits to Elsie, I was feeling really homesick, missing my family overseas, and was feeling bad about being so far away.” Elsie noted the pain and found words to comfort. “I can’t say I understand exactly what you’re feeling because I live in the town where I was born and raised, but I do know what it feels like to be lonesome. Don’t be sad, Irene. You are doing such good work here. I can’t be your mother, but I can be your grandmother.” The offer was heart-felt and greatly appreciated, as Irene’s own grandparents have passed away.
Elsie was an enthusiastic reader and shared her passion with Irene, inspiring her to try reading full-length novels in English, her second language. Elsie loaned Irene a Nicholas Sparks romance about two lovers who longed to be together but could not. After finishing, Irene protested to Elsie saying the ending made her cry. “You can’t do this to me anymore!” Elsie just laughed and teased her, saying she needed to “toughen up” on matters of love.
She told Irene stories about growing up—“real things, funny memories, like sneaking sips of wine from her parents,” Irene said, “or going out dancing at the South Range VFW.” Elsie explained to Irene that she loved dancing but not necessarily the men she danced with, “Give them an inch and they take a mile,” she said, but Irene teased her right back. “At your age, you deserve a little attention. Just relax and enjoy it.”
A mutual sense of humor, shared confidences, taking an interest in the little details that make up another’s life—this is the stuff of friendship, the memories we treasure. At Little Brothers, we focus on reaching out to the elderly, relieving their loneliness and isolation, but what doesn’t get mentioned often enough is the comfort and kindness elders bring to us.
Elsie was 91 when she passed away, in the company of her son and family. The week of her death, Sharon had planned to visit her and share pictures of a cruise she had taken on a sailboat off the coast of Maine. “Elsie would’ve loved seeing those,” she said, “but we never got the chance. When you have a friend in her 90s, you learn to just prize the time you do have with them. She lived a full, happy life right up until the end.”
Here at Little Brothers, we are so grateful to have been a part of it.
Thank you so much for YOUR support—your generous donations give us the wonderful opportunity to befriend extraordinary elders like Elsie.