- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Norma Bauerschmidt is a most unlikely internet sensation, but that may be one reason she’s so popular. Another reason is, at 91 years old she’s still living - really living. She’s having fun inspiring others around the world to do the same, while also helping them deal with the hard issues of end of life.

This summer, “Miss Norma” - as she is known - is what Facebook calls a “Public Figure,” with a page fast closing in on 400,000 likes. Many more people know her story, which has been told and retold by countless websites and broadcasts, newspapers and magazines.

Last summer, she was a 90-year-old nobody in the township of Presque Isle, Mich. Her own son barely knew her.

One day in July, her husband of 67 years died, and two days later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 uterine cancer. You pretty much could have written her brief obituary.

Except, Norma didn’t die.

Nor did she seek treatment. She told her doctor that at her age, no matter how big the mass was, she had no interest in going through surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. She also had no interest in moving into a nursing home, which was option A, because her retired (from journalism and real estate) son, Tim Bauerschmidt, was residing wherever he and his wife, Ramie Liddle, towed their Airstream trailer.

The couple also didn’t like the idea of Norma in a nursing home, so they offered her option B: Join them on the road.

I think I’d like that, Norma said.

Pretty sure they would all get along, her son and daughter-in-law bought a 36-foot-long RV and a new SUV to tow behind it. Norma would have her own suite in the back, and, at her request, a combination washer/dryer.

Ramie, who already was blogging about life on the road with their poodle, Ringo, decided to create a Facebook page to chronicle their drive out West from Michigan in August, calling it “Driving Miss Norma,” and thinking it would be a way for a handful or two of family and friends to follow them and boost their morale.

Truth is, Tim told his mom the other day, they didn’t think she would make it to Mount Rushmore.

Ten months later, on June 1, these “nomadic assisted-living adventurers” pulled into a campground north of Pittsburgh, their 65th-or-so stop on a journey of nearly 10,000 miles. It took them across the top of the country, then along the Rockies and over to Arizona (where Tim and Ramie once owned a home), to national parks - including the Grand Canyon - and then back across the Southwest to New Orleans and along the Gulf of Mexico on around Florida and back up the East Coast all the way to Maine. They visited Niagara Falls before coming to western Pennsylvania, because Ramie is a Zelienople native and was officiating a friend’s wedding this past weekend.

Another camper at Bear Run Campground recognized Miss Norma and called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the family agreed to a visit from a reporter, which they don’t always do. They’re protective of Norma, turning down the talk shows and many other requests. They are looking forward to finishing up a segment that is to air on NBC’s “Today” show.

Their Facebook page chronicles all the cool things they have done on this journey - ziplining, riding in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, being VIP guests at a National Basketball Association game. But on a recent Sunday morning, they were simply relaxing in the RV, doting on Ringo, who just had emergency surgery for a twisted stomach.

Norma was working on a jigsaw puzzle while a load of laundry spun in her washer/dryer. She said her favorite adventures so far included touring the new USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier (the Toledo, Ohio, native served in World War II as a nurse in the U.S. Navy WAVES - Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and taking a hot-air balloon ride, which is something she and her husband, Norm, long had dreamed of doing. “It was great - oh, yes. Very much,” she said in her very soft voice.

She also loved her first taste of Key lime pie, which she ate in every form in Florida. Ditto with lobster in Massachusetts and Maine. In fact, her Facebook has a lot of photos of her eating and drinking, including holding a hefty Primanti’s pastrami-and-egg sandwich and a beer during a foray the family made into Pittsburgh. A photo of her here holding an Eat’n Park Smiley cookie got more than 27,000 likes and other reactions.

This comment on a post last week about Tim and Norma having some ice cream is typical: “With all the sad and depressing news the last couple of days, seeing you and your mom together smiling and laughing just restores some faith in humanity ..”

As Norma is oft quoted as saying, sometimes doctors are wrong. In fact, her doctor gave her his blessing.

“I haven’t gone to the doctor since I left Michigan,” she said, and she feels fine.

“If you could have seen her when we left,” said her son, noting that she has gone from 94 to 110 pounds and from sad to smiling.

He and his wife are having a blast, too. He was angry with Ramie in the spring when they went viral on the internet and their page was getting 2 million views a week (including from author Paulo Coelho, who posted a photo of himself sending Miss Norma his love). They still can’t quite believe all the international attention. But they’re enjoying interacting with people online and in person.

“We’ve been embraced by people incredibly,” Tim said.

“There are times when we wake up and our chests hurt,” Ramie said. “We feel like we’re so full of love.”

Tim has savored spending quality time with Norma and talking with her about things they had never talked about.

“One thing I’ve learned from my mom is, you’re never too old to grow,” Tim said.

“I’m open more now than I used to be,” Norma said.

“You’re not the same person, Mom!” he said. “You’re living!”

What makes it all poignant is, they know Norma is going to die. But, “I guess we’re all terminal,” said Ramie, a former school counselor. “We fully expect her last days to be right here with us.”

People respond to different parts of their story. The cancer. Aging. Parent-child dynamics. Some people are just envious of their vagabond lifestyle, which, they point out, is still cheaper than paying for a nursing home.

While they don’t give advice or tell other people what they should do (“We have no agenda,” Tim said), they’re pleased that their story has touched and affected others.

“It has become a really safe way for people to talk about end-of-life issues with their families,” Ramie said.

They hope to keep encouraging that - through speaking engagements, maybe even a book.

In the meantime, they have places to go and things to do. While they’re still near Pittsburgh, they would like to experience their first Major League Baseball game at PNC Park. Then they will probably head to California, where Miss Norma wants to see the redwood.

She will be taking tens of thousands of people along for the ride, and touching others who haven’t yet met her, such as the fellow camper at Bear Run who was simply impressed to see a woman in her nineties, in a wheelchair, enjoying a live band at a Pennsylvania campground on a Saturday night.

Said Ramie, “Just being, and not being famous, moved her.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/28IV1zg

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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