Eunice Lillian's Video Diaries
My grandma often said living in her 90s felt like living on an island.
Everywhere she went she recognized no one. She didn’t just mean her friends who were gone. She meant people in general. There was no one left in the store, at the restaurant or on the street who shared the experiences of her generation. No one in a crowd who danced to the same songs she once did.
Given how long my grandma lived, most of us only knew her as old. We only saw her as old. Maybe we didn’t really see her at all. But she experienced the same hopes and dreams we have. She loved and cursed, explored and discovered, made mistakes and amends, too.
Some of the stories in this multimedia life celebration might not be told in a traditional eulogy. But these are the stories Eunice Lillian Haynes Engardio wanted to tell. I started interviewing Eunice on videotape when I was 20 and she was 79.
The interviews span 16 years, and now I’ve edited them into short compilations. They are her video diaries. Eunice talks about:
- Ballrooms, Elevators and Low-Cut Wedding Dresses
- Religion, Face Lifts, Cigarettes and Cadillacs
- Accepting Life’s Surprises
- “Learn Your Chords!”
- Hillary for President
Eunice was born in June 1913, exactly seven months after her parents John and Dora Haynes were married. There’s a story to explain the timing. John and Dora were at the circus and Dora, seven months pregnant, took sick. John carried her back to their house where Eunice Lillian was born a few hours later, not expected to live. A midwife asked John for his whisky bottle. She put a few drops in the infant’s mouth and the liquor provided the jump-start Eunice needed to survive. There could be another explanation for the timing of Eunice’s birth. But she never asked.
One of Eunice’s earliest memories was when her parents split up. Eunice and her mom went to stay at a relative’s farmhouse. Eunice would look out the window and whenever a man rode by on a horse she’d run to the door calling for her dad. That was in 1918. John and Dora got back together. They were married more than 50 years.
The story of Eunice is the story of John and Dora. Religion is a good example. John was protestant but not a religious man. He didn’t see any need for going to church. Dora was Catholic and went to mass. But it was more out of superstition than faith. She was also a fan of fortune-tellers. For Eunice, religion was a practical matter. She became Catholic because that’s what her husband was. But after he died, she never went to mass again. Or any church. She didn’t like sitting though church services. They bored her. She believed in Jesus and preferred to read her Bible at home and watch religious shows on TV. A scrap of handwritten paper in her Bible said: “Read Psalms 91 every day.” Her daughter became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Eunice complained plenty, but tolerated it. Eunice respected her daughter’s choice even if she didn’t understand or agree with it.
Eunice’s mom and dad had vastly different personalities and Eunice was a product of both. At various times in her life, Eunice could be more like Dora or more like John. Knowing Eunice’s parents is to know Eunice.
Eunice’s dad, John, was calm like Obama. Life rolled off his back. He escaped Dora’s exasperations by tinkering in the garden and garage. He did his own thing and wasn’t concerned much about how Church and Society said things should be. He drank his beer and whisky all through Prohibition. He never voted Republican. He wasn’t an educated or career man: he delivered ice on horseback, poured iron at the Central Foundry, was unemployed most of the Great Depression. But he was wise, a good judge of character and could figure out how to get the job done when necessary.
Eunice’s mom, Dora, was the nervous, fatalistic type. The sky was always falling. She tightly gripped people and things close to her, fearing she would lose them. Food was her comfort. So was art. She could paint exquisitely. To better understand Dora, consider her mother was the type who intercepted mail from Dora’s boyfriend. Like the plot of a Jane Austen novel, Dora was led to believe the boyfriend never returned her letters and didn’t love her anymore. Dora’s mother didn’t want Dora to marry and move away. These were the mother-daughter issues of 1909.
John liked to teach his daughter life lessons. When six-year-old Eunice wanted to roll and smoke her own cigarettes like daddy, John gave her some rolling paper and tobacco. But the poorly rolled paper caught fire and burned a direct line to Eunice’s nose. She didn’t want to smoke anymore. John was also pragmatic. At 16, when Eunice started smoking for real with her girlfriends, John turned a blind eye when Dora began asking questions.
When Eunice surprised, it was big. A month after turning 70 she walked into a Cadillac dealership and drove off with Coupe De Ville. At 50, two years after she was widowed, she bought a convertible. She wanted to drive with the top down.
Eunice had a 10th grade education and never finished high school. She never heard of Betty Friedan or read The Feminine Mystique. That was the book that sparked the women’s rights movement in 1963 by giving housewives permission to unchain themselves from the kitchen. But Eunice was already driving her convertible by then. Eunice was always doing something ahead of her time. She didn’t want to get married at 19 or 20 when women of her generation were supposed to. She waited until 32. When all her friends married and moved away, she got younger friends.
Eunice was naturally blond and pretty. She learned not to trust men. When her husband first asked her for a date, she said no. Many of the men who asked her out were already married, so her rule was to never accept a date before verifying. A Catholic priest counseling Eunice told her she should stay single, as he moved his hand under her skirt to caress her knee. In the months after becoming a widow, a man in the neighborhood put sexually explicit notes in her mailbox and on the floor of her car. Eunice’s dog caught the man peeking into her bedroom window. She went to the sheriff, who told her there was nothing he could do.
Eunice often struggled to be taken seriously. Her age and looks made some in her husband’s family wonder if she was a gold-digger. It frustrated her because all she ever did was fight off men who wanted to be her sugar daddy. But on the morning of her wedding, as she was putting on her dress, someone in the family was sent to warn Eunice, saying: “I hope this marriage doesn’t end in divorce.”
Eunice remembered when women were not allowed to vote. She was seven when her mom won the right in 1920. Eunice’s dad took Eunice to the polls for the first time in 1936. Her dad pulled the Democratic lever and she would do the same the rest of her life. Eunice last voted for Barack Obama in 2008 – though she really wanted Hillary Clinton. She wanted to see the first woman president happen in her lifetime. Eunice married a Republican. She got along with a husband who voted for Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon over John Kennedy. My grandfather didn’t try to change Eunice’s politics and the marriage worked.
Eunice often said you need a man to get by in this world. She also said this world is out to get anyone who isn’t an accountant or a lawyer. Part of her believed this. She doubted she was going to make it on her own when her husband died and she became an unemployable single mom at 48. That was in 1961, before the term “single mom” existed. Like most women of her time, Eunice was taken care of. Now she had to take care of business. Her 13-year-old daughter suffered, grieving a father while looking to a mother who wasn’t sure what to do.
But Eunice rallied, puffing on two packs of cigarettes to get her through the day. When people said it couldn’t be done, Eunice got a job, at 54, teaching piano at a prep school. She had been playing piano since she was eight. Eunice raised her daughter. Then helped raise her grandson, providing the financial support through a series of modest real estate deals Eunice somehow figured out. She always said she needed a man, but she never again relied on a man. She did it all on her own, without an accountant or a lawyer. She never knew how strong she really was.
Eunice was a liberal, progressive feminist without knowing it. When her daughter got pregnant, and the father left town, Eunice was the only member of the family who stood by her daughter and insisted she keep the baby. When one of Eunice’s best friends also had a pregnant, unmarried daughter, Eunice supported her friend’s decision to arrange for an abortion.
Eunice accepted her gay grandson. Not everything was her cup of tea, as Eunice would say. But for every surprise Eunice encountered, she was pro-choice. Eunice believed everyone should be free to make their own decisions.
Eunice’s two greatest passions were music and dogs. She was a child prodigy at the piano, and at 16 was offered a scholarship to study in Germany. Her parents said no.
But Eunice never stopped playing. She was at the piano until the last months of her life. Music was a great source of comfort and companionship for her. So were her dogs. She had more than a dozen over 90 years.
In this video, Eunice describes her secret to happiness.
A lifelong Democrat, Eunice wanted to see a woman elected president before she died. Eunice was born in 1913 and could remember her mother not being allowed to vote until 1920.
Eunice was 95 when Hillary Clinton ran in the Democratic Primary in 2008. Eunice was a big supporter and with help form her grandson, she made her first and only YouTube video to tell everyone that Hillary would make a great president. It would be Eunice’s last video interview.
Eunice was disappointed that Hillary didn’t win the primary. But she remained a loyal Democrat and voted for Barack Obama. She had a hard time pronouncing his name but knew he was better than the Republican alternative. Eunice lived to see the first African American president take office and died four months later.