Duluth woman reaps the reward of a lifetime of generositySAM COOK: At 95, Harriet Schwenk of Lakeside still is tending her flower garden and mowing her lawn whenever she can beat one of the neighbors to it.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
When I last checked in with Harriet Schwenk, she was 72, shorecasting for trout and salmon from a rock near the mouth of the Lester River. With all the might she could muster in her 4-foot, 7-inch frame, she would fling Little Cleos and Krocodiles into Lake Superior for an hour or so most days.
That was 23 years ago.
Now, at 95, Schwenk has given up shorecasting. But she’s still tending her flower garden and she’s still mowing her lawn whenever she can beat one of the neighbors to it. I stopped in to see her the other day at her home in Lakeside, just to catch up.
Schwenk spent much of her life doing kind things for neighbors and friends. She baked bread and cookies. She shared flowers and seeds from her garden. She mentored beginning gardeners.
“She has such a generosity of spirit,” her longtime neighbor, Marice Dougherty, had told me a few days before. “Somebody will wander into her yard to admire something. Harriet will split it in half and give it to them. She’s just this little hub of goodness.”
Up until her late 70s, Schwenk worked for what she called “the old people,” Dougherty says.
The old people were about the age that Schwenk is currently. Now, people are taking care of Schwenk. She runs down the list of recent visitors. Someone brought her a ham and zucchini bread. Someone brought her a whole cooked chicken. The guys across the street brought fresh vegetables.
“I hardly ever have to cook,” she says.
Soon after I arrive, Schwenk’s phone rings. It’s a neighbor, calling to make sure Schwenk is all right. The neighbor saw a strange man going into her house. Schwenk gets a kick out of that.
She gets a kick out of most things. She is philosophical about life. Happiness is her default mood.
Not that she’s without challenges. In the past year, arthritis has become an issue. She awakens in the mornings with stiff hands, a stiff shoulder and sore legs. She gets up, often before 6 a.m., and eats her oatmeal. Then she can take her arthritis medicine. By afternoon, she’s feeling pretty good.
She took a little spill in her garden one day this summer.
“I fell in the day lilies,” she says. “My first thought was, ‘I hope I didn’t break any of them.’ Getting up from the flat is the hardest part. I made it. But I didn’t tell my kids.”
Those kids are her sons, both retired now and living in Washington state. They call her every week. They came to visit this summer, doing lots of outside chores for their mom.
“They’re going to build a ramp for me,” Schwenk says. “Then people will say, ‘That’s where that old lady lives.’ ”
She laughs at that. Like so many of the people we all like to be around, Schwenk knows how to laugh at herself once in a while.
Born in Alexandria, Minn., she moved to Duluth when she was 16 to live with an older sister. She met her husband, George, here. He worked on the boats. They had a good, long life together. After George died 27 years ago, Schwenk kept fishing. She kept gardening. She kept baking for friends.
“I’ve never been lonesome, like some of my widow friends,” she says. “They get depressed. I’ve got too much to do to think about that.”
When you live as long as Schwenk, some things inevitably change.
“I know more dead people now than live ones,” she says with her familiar cackle.
She has given up half her garden, turning it back to grass, in a small concession to her age. She loves to mow her grass.
“Because it looks so nice when I get done,” she says.
But her eyes have gotten worse in the past few years, making the mowing more difficult.
“I have to look really close. One day I missed a strip about this wide,” she says, holding her hands shoulder-width apart.
She laughs about that, too.
Schwenk, one of seven kids in her family, has just an eighth-grade education. While George worked on the boats, she did housework for other Duluth residents.
I asked her what she has found most rewarding in life.
“The kids — trying to bring them up without getting into trouble,” she says. “Which we did. And just to go dancing. I missed that when George died. But you can’t do it all. At 95, I couldn’t do the rock-and-roll.”
The little cackle comes again.
The conversation turns to fishing and Schwenk’s days of shorecasting.
“Did I ever show you the picture of my biggest one?” she says.
She quickly retrieves her fishing album.
“I keep it handy,” she says with a grin.
The photo is faded and a bit soft in the details. But there she is, all 4-foot-7 of her, holding a 10-pound Kamloops rainbow trout that stretches from her waist to the ground. She launches into a description of the fight.
“He took off like a bat out of hell,” she says.
A man watching came over to net the fish for her.
Before I leave, Schwenk pads into the kitchen, where some black seeds lie on a sheet of notebook paper. She wants me to take them.
“Cosmos,” she says, “like those tall, pink ones.”
She points out the window to the garden, and I see the tall, pink blossoms in the September sun. She grabs an envelope and slides the seeds into it.
When the time is right, we will plant them. When they bloom, I’ll think about a little hub of goodness. And a hearty laugh.