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Front Porch: Near 103-year-old unsinkable

Jeunette Nelson was born in 1912, the same year the Titanic sank − but unlike the ill-fated ocean liner Nelson really has proved to be unsinkable.

As her 103rd birthday approaches on Nov. 16, she said, “I think I’m going to start counting backwards, now!”

From her room at Harvard Park, she reflected on growing up on a farm in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. “I was number 7 out of 10 children,” she said. “I had five brothers and five sisters. Mother was pregnant all the time − she had a baby every 18 months!”

Growing up on a farm meant work. Nelson said, “I had to milk nine cows every morning and every night − we all had our own cows to milk.”

No matter how early she woke, her mother was up earlier, having already heated water on the woodstove for her family to wash up. When Nelson came in from the barn, a hot breakfast was ready. “My mother was a slave,” she said. “She worked so hard.”

Milking cows wasn’t her only chore; she also had to take her turn splitting wood. “We all worked like men,” she said. “When the boys got older and worked off the farm to earn money to court their girlfriends, we girls took up the slack.”

After chores it was time for school. First in a one-room schoolhouse for grades one through eight and then high school in a nearby town.

Nelson stayed on the farm until she met Lewis Martin when she went to town to buy shoes. He worked at the store and asked her out. At 25, she married him and soon a baby was on the way.

But tragedy struck. When she was six months pregnant, Martin was killed in a car accident on Christmas Eve.

They were living in Mount Vernon, Washington, at the time and both her parents came out to help when the baby was born. She named her son Lewis Martin after the father she never knew. “I had three dollars to my name when the baby came,” she said.

Brushing off any talk of personal pain, Nelson said she just got on with the business of living − and making a living for herself and her son.

It was 1944 and she worked at Boeing and at an ironworks in the Seattle area. That’s where she met her second husband, Herb Nelson.

They eventually settled in Spokane and had a son, Herbert and a daughter, Louise. After 55 years of marriage, Herb died on May 18, 1980. “The day Mount St. Helens erupted,” said Nelson.

When asked if she’d been tempted to marry again, she said, “God forbid! Too big a heartache.”

During those long decades of marriage to her second husband, Nelson found her calling and her career as a beautician. “I worked at the Bon Marche and after Herb died, I kept on working.”

She also had a home salon for many years. “I over-worked,” she admitted. “I worked too long.”

Then she grinned. “I worked too hard to have time to be mischievous.”

Her lovely halo of white hair, perfectly applied make-up and tasteful manicure show she hasn’t lost her skills.

And even now, Nelson’s hands are far from idle. As we spoke, she fingered a round loom. She’s been busy knitting hats for charity. In addition, since moving to Harvard Park six years ago, she regularly attends exercise classes and takes daily walks.

She doesn’t like to walk alone, but she’s also clear that she doesn’t need assistance. “Everybody tries to take your arm and help you walk,” she said. “I don’t like that. I like to be free as a bird.“ Her hands flutter, mimicking a bird in flight.

Nelson’s innate Norwegian stubbornness seems to have served her well. “I’ll keep walking unassisted as long as I can,” she said. “Nobody tells me when I have to make changes.”

She’s witnessed some epic changes in her lifetime. She said, “I remember being at a party and someone said, ‘We will never be able to walk on the moon.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes we will!’ The party stopped and everyone looked at me like I was crazy. They thought I was nuts.”

And of course, Nelson was right. She added, “But none of the people that were at that party are living − except me.”

And that’s one of the drawbacks of longevity − you tend to outlive your friends and loved ones. Nelson’s last surviving sister passed away last month and the loss shook her.

“I’m the only one left,” she said.

When asked the secret to a long life, Nelson said, “I never smoked and one drink would last me all evening. I lived a clean life, I guess.”

As I left her home, she asked, “Are you going to write this up for the newspaper?”

“I sure am,” I replied.

She squeezed my arm and grinned. “Make it nice,” she said. “Make it decent.”

As if a story about Jeunette Nelson could be anything else.

Contact Cindy Hval at She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Her previous columns are available online at columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.