The guests start to wander off as they finish snapping photos of Henrietta (Meyer) Neukam, the star of the show. She’s left sitting in her wheelchair, posed in front of three pink mylar balloons — a one and two zeroes — tied to a massive John Deere tractor.
Someone, realizing she’s alone, walks up to Henrietta and leans down.
“Are you getting tired?” she asks.
“No,” Henrietta responds and wheels herself back to the table to open more cards.
About a dozen family members and church friends gathered, socially distanced, recently in a pole barn at Henrietta’s home in Dale, Indiana, to celebrate her 100th birthday.
Henrietta was born Feb. 4, 1921, a few years after the world had begun to recover from a pandemic. She grew up during the depression and married during World War II. Now, she’s living through another pandemic.
Her mother died when she was 12. She was the oldest of four — three brothers and one sister. The family needed a mother figure, so Henrietta was put in charge of raising her siblings.
She cooked three meals a day for the family while also cleaning, tending to the garden and helping on the farm.
“I did it, but it wasn’t fun,” she said, laughing.
Henrietta has lived on farms her whole life. As a child, she helped milk cows to make butter and cheese, baked bread, drove horses and canned pork and beef so it wouldn’t go bad without a freezer.
Life was a lot different back then. The family had no running water, no TV unless they went to the neighbor’s house and no phone for a long time. Even when they did get a phone, the line was shared between several households — not good for urgent calls, she said, but great for eavesdropping on gossip.
Henrietta and her siblings had to walk to school, even in the mud and snow. At the time, families had to pay for their children to attend high school, so Henrietta finished her education when she graduated from the eighth grade.
Growing up, Henrietta lived about a mile away from a boy named Bill. They went to the same church and school.
Henrietta eventually married Bill in November 1942, right before he had to travel overseas for the war. She wouldn’t see her husband again for more than three years.
All three of her brothers were drafted, too.
“When one brother came back, another would have to leave,” she said.
While Bill was off in North Africa and Italy, Henrietta made bullet shells and binocular glass to send to the troops. As soon as her husband came home, though, she was quitting, she’d tell everyone.
Bill and Henrietta had two children, Sharon and Rich.
Throughout her life, Henrietta never stopped moving. She worked tirelessly on the farm and cooked for her family, with chicken and dumplings as her specialty. Every day for 40 years, she’d take meals out to everyone working on the farm.
“We’re talking four course meals here, not just some Wendy’s hamburger,” Rich said.
Bill died in March 2009. It’s been lonesome since then, Henrietta said, but there’s still plenty to do to stay busy.
She didn’t stop driving until she was about 98 years old. She’s an active member of St. James Lutheran Church in Holland.
Even on the morning of her 100th birthday, she was straightening up dishes from her wheelchair.
Henrietta never thought about slowing down, even when she didn’t feel well.
“She’d complain about it, but she’d never quit,” Rich said.
On Nov. 10 of last year, though, her active lifestyle came to a screeching halt.
Earlier in the month, she met with a neighbor friend who just seemed to have a mild cold. A few days later, Henrietta was diagnosed with COVID-19.
She went through several hospitals and eventually ended up in hospice care. Eight out of every 10 reported COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been adults aged 65 and older, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are 85 and older are at highest risk.
For the most part, Henrietta was only offered medication to help with the pain. Nurses told Rich he needed to be ready to let her go, but he refused to quit on his mom.
“I couldn’t give up on her like that,” he said.
By her birthday, Henrietta was nearly back to her old self. She had gained back about 15 pounds. If it wasn’t for her wheelchair, which she didn’t use before, it’d be hard to tell she fought the deadly disease in the first place.
The past year has been one of loss for many people, including the Neukams. A lot is still left uncertain. But even a small gathering where Henrietta was able to sit with four generations of loved ones on a Thursday afternoon was enough cause for celebration.
“We’re just glad she’s here,” Rich said.