- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

GOSHEN, Ind. (AP) - All of the attention was wearing out Rachel Kreider recently, as the small woman entertained visitors, opened stacks of birthday cards and fielded phone calls in her assisted-living room.

If she has any real complaints these days, in fact, it’s that she just doesn’t have the energy she used to have. But then, she adds, “I guess when you’re 106, you don’t have the right to complain.”

Instead of complaining, Kreider is thoughtful and charming.

From her room at Greencroft Communities in Goshen, where she and her husband retired in 1982, Kreider reads books, writes notes on her old Olympia typewriter and watches the occasional news show on television.

She worries a lot, in a newspaper interview, about appearing too prideful or making someone uncomfortable.

Asked about her life as a Mennonite, for instance, Kreider says, “To tell the truth, I belonged to one of those wicked liberal denominations.” Then she laughs and expresses worry about offending anyone. Whether one branch is more liberal than another, she realizes, “depends on who’s talking.”

“I’ve always been a religious person, but I hope not unpleasantly so,” she says. “I never want my friends to feel uncomfortable with me.”

She misses going to church now. But her faith, which she “is never finished” examining, has been an underpinning of a life that has seen its share of pain and difficulty.

Her husband, Leonard Kreider, died of a stroke in 2001, after nearly 68 years of marriage. But her most profound sorrow is losing her two daughters, Anna and Sara, to cancer relatively young.

“That is something you have to get used to, but you never get over it,” Kreider said of the deaths of the two women, both of whom had been college professors. “Why did they both have to suffer?”

Her grown son, Emil, is retired in Virginia and watches over her finances.

“My big job is to take care of myself as much as possible and not be a burden to anybody else, at least in the ways I can avoid,” Kreider says. Part of that is taking a batch of pills parsed out for every day, although she’s not sure what they’re for, because her health is good.

She’s always liked vegetables, and meat, although her teeth don’t allow her to each much meat anymore. She’s never been big on sweets, and she never smoked or drank alcohol.

Her mother lived to be 91, and her sister is 95 and still driving. But Kreider is still surprised to have aged so well and so long.

In addition to the usual childhood diseases, she always seemed to easily catch flu that lingered longer than in others. When she was young, she had “nervous headaches,” which Kreider’s mother attributed to playing too hard.

And Kreider recalls perhaps worrying too much, even as a child.

“One of the first things I remember, when I was a little girl, they would put gravel on the roads, about 1914 or so. It didn’t faze my father, who drove our Ford touring car. I was sure we’d be stuck in a pit,” she says, and laughs, because they never were stuck.

And she certainly experienced the strains of saving pennies during the Depression era and of raising children, for instance. “There was always stress in trying to do better, trying to fulfill obligations,” she says.

As a young woman she did, as we all must do, learn to manage the strains of life. “I think,” she says, “it was partly learning how to live.”

Kreider was never enamored with domesticity, until her husband proposed to her by asking whether she’d be willing to attend college and “be poor” together.

In her day, only men assumed they would attend college.

“For that man, I could do it,” she says of keeping house. She became quite good at pie-making, Leonard’s favorite.

Nonetheless, those days of scrambling to keep things together as they attended Goshen College together were especially difficult.

“If we didn’t have those debts, we wouldn’t have anything,” she jokes. He earned a doctorate in chemistry, she a master’s degree in philosophy.

Kreider doesn’t call herself a feminist, identifying that movement as one that belonged to her daughters’ generation. But she was no shrinking violet.

“I wasn’t one of those ardent feminists. I just felt ardently about the rights of women all along,” she acknowledges. “I was not a rebellious person, but I was not one to just swallow everything I was told.”

According to a 2013 article in a Mennonite publication, Kreider took leadership positions in various church groups over the years.

Upon retirement she followed up on a keen interest in genealogy, publishing research on the Yoders, her parents’ family, and writing “Overcoming Evil” in 1957, a “peace play.”

Learning about our past, she understands, connects us with each other and our future.

She’s uncomfortable with the spotlight. Mennonites believe in humility. But Kreider says she’s been enjoying the extra cards and visits that accompanied her birthday.

A friend knocks on the door to wish her a happy birthday. Mary Mishler, who lives nearby, reminds Kreider that a couple of years ago, she delivered a speech to a standing-room-only crowd at Greencroft titled “What I learned in the last 100 years.”

Kreider doesn’t remember the details of that now, but Mishler says, “She had us in stitches.”

Despite some of the infirmities of old age, Kreider acknowledges, “The tongue never got old.”

Someone said the oldest person alive is 116. Does Kreider think she’ll live that long?

“I don’t see how I could. But I don’t see how I could be 106. I’m really sort of surprised I’m still here,” she says, then pauses.

“I enjoy it,” she says cheerily of being alive. “I’m glad I am.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/1JkD59t

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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