The first contact came almost a decade ago when Nell O’Brien, as readers sometimes do, offered a story tip: a friend in her town — she lived in Chase City at the time — had been born in England, survived the German bombing of World War II and after the war had settled in the small town in Southside Virginia.
The hook? The woman turned 109 in 2010.
O’Brien, who once aspired to be a journalist, knows a good story when she sees one.
Since then, the emails have arrived typically at least a couple of times a week, commenting on what I’ve written or another story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch or generally the world at large. Her observations are insightful, often funny and very much to the point. She doesn’t mess around.
She also has sent me travel tips from trips she and her late husband took to places around the world and even has included copies of her journals and brochures from those adventures if she finds out my wife and I are headed in those directions. She is very organized. Who keeps travel notes from 30 or 40 years ago? And even if we kept them, who among us could find them?
Our correspondence has been a delight, which is why I half-jokingly describe O’Brien as my (email) pen pal. However, we had not met face to face until last month when photographer Bob Brown and I dropped by for a visit at the home of her daughter, Cecile, in Hanover County, where O’Brien now lives.
She is 94.
O’Brien and her granddog, Roonie (aka “King of the Castle”), a friendly West Highland terrier who stays by her side, greeted us at the door. It was like a reunion with a lifelong friend I’d never met.
She gave us a quick tour of the part of the house where she spends much of her time, noting that like a lot of people who need to downsize in later years, she has had to greatly reduce the number of her possessions and has become “a lesson in how to get along with less.”
How’s that working out?
“Fine,” she said. For anyone who grew up in the Great Depression, as she did, “this is luxury.”
She showed us the stories behind family photographs and offered a couple of favorite paperbacks to take to our wives (she’s an avid reader, and these were among her favorites, written by Rosamunde Pilcher, a British author of romance novels). She pointed out the computer where she composes those emails and pokes around the web. I complimented her on her willingness to embrace the changing technological landscape.
“I love it,” she said. “It is a blessing, but I have friends who will not get near a computer. I love mine.”
Through the years, I’ve learned a bit about O’Brien, including that she grew up in Raleigh, N.C., and wanted to attend the University of North Carolina and study journalism. But there wasn’t money to do so and, after a period in Quantico while her husband, Wyatt, served in the Marine Corps, she wound up in Chase City, where Wyatt managed a pharmacy, working with his brother, who was the pharmacist.
“He was born to sell,” she said of Wyatt, who died in 2008 after 64 years of marriage, “and he loved it.”
Within her family, she is known as “Bam,” which was acquired “through my inability to pronounce Gram, and a more perfect description of how she punches through life could not have been given,” said granddaughter Meghan O’Brien Lowery.
“My memories of her are woven with maps, journals of her travels, descriptions of foreign lands and great stories filled with her infectious laughter,” said Lowery, who has worked in philanthropic and nonprofit sectors focusing on animal and human rights and is now director of The Greenbaum Foundation, an international organization that funds projects working to bring about the end of suffering, human and non-human.
“As a young curious intellect, my grandmother didn’t have the option to attend college or satiate her unending desire to explore and learn,” Lowery said. “This passion was injected into my young mind, thus inspiring me to travel, change the planet and interact with every possible opportunity. I very consciously live my life to fulfill not only my dreams and yearning but hers; to share a collective experience that each of us can learn from.”
During the course of our correspondence over the years, I also learned that O’Brien lost an older brother in World War II.
Sgt. William LeVerne Jeffries, serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces, was an engineer and waist gunner on a B-17 bomber dubbed “The Bad Check.” In the military, he was known as “Jeff.” At home, he was just LeVerne. He and all but one other member of the crew died Feb. 10, 1944, when their plane collided with another U.S. B-17 over Germany, on only its third mission.
Years later, O’Brien visited and interviewed the lone survivor, who was captured by the Germans and held in prisoner-of-war camps, and she provided me a transcript from that meeting. The survivor told her the other plane was from another squadron and in the wrong place.
O’Brien was a teen when her brother went into service, and I asked what she remembered about him as he was growing up.
“He had a voice like an angel,” she said. “A tenor. He was in several choirs. He was outstanding.”
LeVerne was only 23 when he died. O’Brien answered the door at home when the telegram arrived.
“They handed me the telegram, and I took it to Mother, and that’s how she learned of it,” O’Brien said, tears welling in her eyes.
O’Brien showed us yellowed newspaper clippings that mentioned her brother, who was buried first at Margraten, an American military cemetery in the Netherlands. His mother later had LeVerne’s remains moved to a cemetery in Raleigh.
“She never got over it,” O’Brien said of her mother. “She lived to be 97 and, when she died, she had buried her three sons.”
As the next-to-youngest of four children, O’Brien is the only one left.
She said, “I keep wondering, ‘What am I here for?’”
I can think of a lot of reasons.
We talked about that first story that brought us together, the May 2011 article I wrote about Marion Kate “Kitty” Sawyer, who was on the verge of turning 110 when I showed up to talk to her. She recounted how she had remained in her home in the suburbs of London despite the German blitz and bombings that shook loose pieces of the ceiling and blew out the windows.
“If I was going to be killed, I was going to be killed in my house,” Sawyer said, still defiant at 109. “I wasn’t going to have any German tell me I had to leave my house.”
She sounds a little like someone else I know.
Sawyer died in February 2013, at age 111.
O’Brien has a ways to go to hit that mark, and she has a lot of talent to carry with her. This is a woman who, besides being an elegant writer, was a watercolorist before Wyatt retired and they started traveling the world. But that’s not all.
“Let me tell you, I’m a singer,” she said. “Have been all my life.”
She then proceeded to tell us a great story about her singing.
She and Wyatt were on a cruise aboard the Queen Mary. They were sitting in a lounge, listening to a six-piece group playing jazz, and the emcee was going around with a microphone letting passengers sing. He introduced the next song: the jazz standard, “Deed I Do.”
“I said, ‘Oh, Wyatt, I know that, and it’s a good key for me,’” she recalled. “I don’t know if [the emcee] heard me, but he came to me first, and he poked that microphone in my face. I sang it, baby! I ripped through that. It was the most fun I’ve ever had singing.”
“I’ve had a great life,” she said. “I try to be prepared every day, you know, not to be here. We don’t expect to die, but I’m not afraid of it. I’ve really had a good time.”