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Wisconsin Woman Shows How Wisdom Comes With Age

“You worry too much. There’s no point in worrying about things you can’t control.”

I heard this saying so many times that it didn’t mean anything to me, but for some reason, it did when it came from Jean’s 85-year-old mouth while she sat in my passenger seat during a Walgreens prescription run. Her sweet-sounding but hard-hitting tone embodies the best quality of older people-they have the wisdom experience to say it like it is.

I immediately stopped complaining about school or work or whatever nonsense it was. This was just one of those times with her that’s painted into my memory forever. I won’t forget this one simple time at the stoplight. And all the other “simple” times that became more important as I got older.

I always wanted to believe what she said. Actually, I want to be like her.

With a tough attitude and a hard slap to the back to anyone she greets, Jean would never admit how much she is helping young college students earn their degrees by silently sponsoring scholarships to students attending Mount Mary University and Alverno College, two women’s colleges in the greater Milwaukee area.

While Jean acknowledges that she was paying around $400 per year for a private education “100 years ago,” she knows the value of a scholarship or even an odd job here and there. She did the same during her college years in the 50s, from babysitting at night and working retail during the weekends.

In a time of need, I was a modern-day version of Jean paying for my undergraduate degree at Alverno College. “100 years later,” I was now paying thousands of dollars every semester, and I also happened to love unconventional jobs.

As Jean grew older and more tired of household jobs, she hired my own mother as a caregiver. A few years later in 2016, she took me in to help with the weeds that needed pulling and years of flowers that needed cleaning up. I had no experience with horticulture, and Jean’s backyard botanical gardens were the best place to start.

The greatest part of the job is that I would work alone. Easy enough. I could bring my headphones. Didn’t even need to talk to her.

“WOW! I’ve never seen anyone with such skinny legs!” Jean yelled the first day I arrived to her house.

Unphased, I knew older people were sassy, and I was just there to get a job done.

Between classes at Alverno College, I sped to her house near campus to earn whatever under the table pay she was willing to offer in the few hours I could help.

Before long, we ended up talking more than working while she sat her motorized scooter in the sun watching me, or got down in the dirt herself. There were hot summer days spent planting extra flowers, pulling even more weeds, and entertaining her sass just to stick around a little longer. With sweat and makeup dripping down my face, I never made it back to class looking decent. Yet, these shifts were becoming the part of my week that I looked forward to.

It was like I was her insight into the younger world, and she was my source of wisdom for all the things I hadn’t learned yet. We usually chatted about the “what ifs” and the “what do you believes.”

“Sometimes there are things that happen that we can’t explain,” she said looking up into her thoughts. “I think what we believe is what will happen.”

Typically I didn’t share any beliefs or have a desire to learn from anyone over the age of 60. But here I was, learning more from an old lady than from my “top of the line” education.

Victor Gomes, a writer for Nautilus Science Magazine says that older people have more control over emotion, more compassion, and empathy, and they make better decisions based on their experience.

Do all old people have amazing wisdom-inducing life experiences? What did this woman do before she met me? Why do I like her so much?

I learned that Jean started her life in Peshtigo, Wisconsin until moving to Milwaukee to attend college at Mount Mary University. In addition to earning her Master’s degree from UWM in 1959, she spent a lifelong career as a biology and special education teacher at Whitnall High School until retiring in 1993, three years before I was even born!

After years of working with tougher adolescents than myself, traveling to multiple countries with her husband, and losing him in 2011, Jean now lives with her big cat, Yenny, in Greenfield, Wisconsin. Today seems to own every book and magazine ever published, and even attends classes at the community center, on topics like Greek Mythology. With wooden carvings, tribal masks, and seashells sitting around, her home tells the story of her travels and passions.

If it’s passed 3PM, I don’t dare bother her. She’s watching her sports, reading books, or recharging her social battery after she has worn out her bubbliness for the day. We may be decades apart, but I’ve never related to another person's need for separation so much. This entire relationship was meant to be.

“Isn’t it crazy how you can be friends with someone a million years younger than you?” She often jokes.

While her experiences are admirable, they didn’t mean much to me at first. It’s Jean’s desire to continually learn and invest in herself even at 90 years old that I love. Young people like myself tend to give older people a bad rap, but there’s a lot to learn from older generations on how to be the best versions of ourselves.

Even as she continues to learn, she wants the same for others. In 2017, Jean helped cover my study abroad trip to Ireland during my final year of undergraduate school. She exchanged a check for my “hard work” at her house. While it wasn’t a fair trade in my eyes, I knew she would’ve done anything to give me the opportunity to learn and travel.

It took several years of wondering why she gave money to myself, and students she doesn’t even know. It turns out to be more of a lesson to do good things, regardless of the payout.

I admire the woman, but we have disagreed often. Like that one time, we argued over our differing food choices while I should have been cooking for her with my mouth shut. That’s what happens when you become someone’s family. On this day of “work,” I made her lunch of choice; veal and mushrooms.

“Is this what you eat for lunch when you’re old?” I thought.

As a sophomore in college, I hadn’t really cooked more than pasta and eggs. The stove in my old rented house was overdue for a replacement by 20 years and set the smoke alarm off when we turned it on, so these were my first opportunities to cook. Meat was not my first choice, especially from an adorable calf.

“Why do you want to eat a baby cow?”I asked her.

“More tender,” she responded quickly with a stone face.

“It’s kind of sad, don’t you think? Hurting animals?“

“Don’t you think it hurts plants when you kill them and eat them?” she asked like this had been on her mind for years.

I usually had no problem clapping back, but this time I was speechless. I knew her lifelong experience as a biology teacher gave her a leg up in this argument. This lady knew what she was talking about.

“Hell, you think this is bad? I used to have pet cows that I helped birth on the farm. We even named them before we killed them. It was so cool! Sometimes at dinner, I’d ask my parents’ ‘Hey is this Betsy?’ It’s all part of life,” Jean said.

To this day, I can’t enjoy meat the way she does. Yet that’s the best thing about us. We are unafraid and even happy to speak our minds and disagree with one another.

There’s also that time we took a drive to fill up her unused car. There was good reason for it since she crashed into a light pole before we made it out of the driveway.

“Jean! I don’t think this is a good idea.”

This was the first time I actually raised my voice at her.

“You know what I used to say when I was younger? Shit happens!” she yelled back.

Jean & Willow, 2022

These days, life with a job much worse than weed pulling often gets in the way of routine visits, but I occasionally repay her for what she’s done with what I know makes her happiest; my daughter, Willow Jean.

Willow may not remember Jean, but she will have the generational instinct to speak her mind, stay curious, and be selfless as long as I’m here to teach her the Jean way of life.

When I was figuring out who I was and where I wanted to be after college, I knew I wanted to be like Jean because I already saw myself in her. A reader, a learner, a “tough” woman, a giver, a jokester.

“It better be a funny one!” Jean said when she heard about this story. That means this will probably be too sappy for her.

While I still have her, I ask her everything about her life to make sure she lives on with my family. I will never have the gardening thing down without Jean’s guidance, but my mom and I will do our best to piece together our favorite lessons from her, like how she manages to grow 8-foot-tall lilies.

Jean Halvorsen, July 2017


About the Author

Jeana Prudhomme

Jeana Prudhomme is a Communications professional, as well as the Founder and Editor of Respect Your Mother Magazine. She received B.A in Communications from Alverno College in 2017, and an M.A in New Media and Professional Writing in the Spring of 2022. After years of focusing on solutions journalism and non-fiction writing related to feminism and sustainability, she has created art from her passions in the form of this ecofeminist magazine.

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