On Your Corner: 107-year-old shares memories from a lifetime

On Your Corner

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sitting on a wicker couch in a garage that’s been converted into a place to gather, Louise Burkhalter laughs about the first time she stepped into the tee box, determined to take up the game of golf.

Her husband played regularly and now, with more free time later in life, she began to play daily. She was 62 years old and she fell in love.

Golf is one of the things she misses most in life now. At 107, she’s not able to swing a club or move quite like she used to. But she still remembers the 37 years she was able to hit the links each day.

“I golfed quite late until my balance was not too good anymore,” Burkhalter said, who was 96 when she stopped golfing. “I thought maybe well, ‘I don’t want to fall down, I better stop swinging the club. It might take me down the fairway with it.’”

Time has done nothing to her humor, wit, or candor. It may have dulled hands that liked to sew and eyes that liked to see the fruits of her gardening, but her memory is sharp.

“I remember when he was in WWI,” Burkhalter said of her older brother. “I remember this so very well, I must’ve been 5 or 6 but anyways, I was old enough to be playing out and I had a swing, a tree swing, and where we was living was off of the highway and there was a road that came from the highway on to our house.

“I could see his hat, walking down the road. A bus had probably dropped him off and he was walking home and he was coming from WWI. He had been gassed and so he was home a little early.”

There isn’t much this centurion hasn’t been through. She lived through two world wars, a great depression, a civil rights movement. She’s experienced the joy of life, as her three daughters are still alive today, the oldest is 84.

She also has learned from loss. She lost her husband, Carl, 23 years ago after 65 years of marriage.

“Ten years was really rough,” Burkhalter remembered about the decade after she lost Carl. “But then I stayed in our home and so I was busy in our home on the lake and my children would come home, my grandchildren would come home and on weekends someone was always home, and so they loved coming to the lake. And then, I continued to golf and so my life was good and I still had a good life.”

It was a life built together. Carl and Louise moved from Tampa where she grew up, to Harrison, Mich. during the Great Depression. They built a house on a farm and raised their three daughters. Now she laughs to think she’s a great-great-grandmother.

“I think the most wonderful period in my life was when I was married,” Burkhalter remembers. “My husband and I, it wasn’t always easy but we was always happy and made things work and had a good life. In his later years, we had a marina and we lived on the farm and we had about 300 acres. We had beef cattle and we had, we had everything that you do have on the farm, I think. Which was a good life, I loved living on the farm.”

Now she lives with her daughter Mary in a condo association on Grand Rapids’ West Side. She spends her days outside where she’ll pause to appreciate the breeze or the company of friends. When her ability to walk declined, she asked her daughter Mary to park the car in the driveway and set up the garage with wicker furniture so that she could continue to interact with her friends in the neighborhood.

Each day, the crowds will gather like family to sit and talk.

“When I look at you, I think your secret is contentment,” a friend noted. “You just make the most of everything. You enjoy everything, every day.”

Burkhalter is quick to say she doesn’t have a secret to longevity, if she did, she’d share. Although her granddaughter likes to point to Burkhalter’s daily gin and tonic, just one every day at 4 p.m. Burkhalter is even quicker to deflect and move on.

“If I’d a known that a gin and tonic was going to do that much, I would’ve started a long time ago,” she joked.

There is a sense of contentment Burkhalter has, an ease to the way she remembers, and to the way she sees the world now.

Two of the most impactful moments of her life can be summed up in loss.

“One of the difficult times in my life is when I lost my mother. I was just 13 then. That’s a really hard time to lose your mother and my father never remarried,” Burkhalter remembers. “My mother had tuberculosis. And in those days, there was no help, no cure, there was help but no cure. She was ill for about three years, which was very, very hard. When she passed away, my mother as only 43. She was young.”

Burkhalter has outlived her mother by nearly 65 years. But still has vivid memories of that love that helped nurture her. One of those times was during the first major pandemic she lived through: the Spanish flu. She was 5 years old when she got sick.

“I really don’t remember too much about it, about the illness, all that I do remember about it, I thought my room was on fire,” Burkhalter still recalls about getting the virus. “I had the fever and when my fever broke, my mother was sitting by my bed in a rocking chair and she was holding me and I remember my room being on fire and I was fighting to get out of the room. I do remember that much about it.”

It’s memories like these that allow that contentment to radiate from a wicker couch on the West Side of Grand Rapids each day.

“I can tell you right now we’re going through one of those times,” Burkhalter said about the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m older now and I know more about what’s going on now than I did when I was just a child. But we’ll get through it.”

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