ALTOONA — Emma Perry has seen, read and learned a great deal in her 103 trips around the sun.
She’s seen 18 presidents of the United States and both world wars. She survived the Great Depression as well as the many ebbs and flows of the American economy. She’s witnessed the progression of technology — from the little radio she and her siblings would crowd around after supper in their youth to the computers and smartphones of today.
But what Perry said she tries to remember daily is to be thankful. Always.
“Be thankful — be thankful for absolutely everything,” Perry said Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by family and friends at her 103rd birthday celebration at Grace Edgewood in Altoona. “I am so thankful, and the Lord’s been good to me. I’ve been really blessed.”
But it’s not just Perry who felt thankful as she approaches her 103rd year of life.
For Perry’s two daughters, Sharon Batterman, 71, of Sheboygan and Sue Abboud, 67, of Eau Claire, the day was yet another reminder of how grateful they are for the resilient and loving woman they get to call “Mom” and that they’re celebrating yet another birthday by her side.
“We’re really fortunate to have her with us still,” Abboud said, beaming as she watched her mother and a group of fellow Grace Edgewood residents sing along to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” “It’s amazing. What a remarkable lady.”
Perry was born Nov. 27, 1915, in Hillsdale, an unincorporated community in Barron County located along Highway 25. She was one of eight children born to her parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin from Germany in the mid-1800s.
Perry said she still remembers some German and Norwegian from her parents and was never actually taught to pray in English, only in German.
“We’ve got a lot to be thankful for here in America, you know? That’s what they taught me,” Perry said.
Perry also said she remembers the Great Depression and other recessions in the United States, when farmers “lost everything,” as she sees beginning to happen now.
“I can remember when so many farmers were losing their livelihood years ago, and today I read about it in the paper again,” Perry said, shaking her head. “It’s really a cycle. We’ve come back again, unfortunately.”
On Nov. 23, 1936, she married Arthur Perry. After spending their first two years married in Waukegan, Ill., Perry returned to Barron to live with her parents after her husband was enlisted in World War II.
“They were taking every boy that could walk — I have lots of memories of that,” Perry said. “Thank the good Lord he made it back OK.”
During the war, Perry worked in the ration office in Barron. When her husband returned from the war, they settled in Chetek, where they raised their two daughters.
Primarily a homemaker, Abboud said, Perry sewed all of her daughter’s clothing herself — even her wedding gown — and was affectionately referred to as “the family baker.”
Perry also volunteered with the local American Legion and auxiliary chapters, sold Avon and worked in the school’s cafeteria and a local store for a few years, Abboud said.
“She’s remarkable and so loving,” Abboud said. “It was always family first for her. And boy, is she strong.”
After surviving a heart attack in her late 50s, Perry has had relatively few health issues, Abboud said, noting Perry lived alone at the family house in Chetek until May, when she moved into Grace Edgewood.
Perry was even still driving until last fall — well, really only to the local Kwik Trip for bananas, Abboud clarified with a laugh.
Although Perry has always felt lucky for the life she’s been given and, most of all, her family, this year it feels “unbelievable” to think of all that she’s lived through, she said.
“Lots and lots of things have happened in my time — most of them were good, but we had some bad ones. Everybody has those,” Perry said. “That’s life. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“And to be honest, we don’t want to know,” Perry added, chuckling.
Perry’s seven siblings are gone, but she has two grandsons, one great-grandson, two great-granddaughters and another great-grandchild due this December.