A large number of family pictures are displayed around the Norkoski home in Cosmopolis. John and Mary have had decades to collect them as Mary turned 100 on Jan. 26 and John just turned 104 on Friday.
They’ve been married for 78 years. Combined, they’ve spent 187 years on Grays Harbor, 175 of those in Cosmopolis.
During a recent visit, both were napping in living room chairs. They still converse sometimes, but it’s made more difficult because Mary has a hard time speaking and John doesn’t hear that well any more.
Their son Don is their primary caregiver. He receives help from other family members to make them feel comfortable and cared for. They really enjoy having visitors come to their home. however.
“It’s one of the problems of getting old,” Don explained. “You outlive friends and family. It gets a little lonely at the top.”
Mary suffered a stroke seven years ago. She breathes heavily and has settled for action shows and movies on television after a lifetime of spending several hours a day reading. The stroke affected her speech and cognitive abilities.
“She almost didn’t make it,” Don said.
Mary spent a month in a nursing home and, after about a month, she grew unhappy, along with feeling quite unwell after her physical ordeal. It was decided she needed to come home to “either get better or die,” Don remembered.
Mary’s family came to the United States from Poland. She was born in Chicago and her family moved west while she was an infant. They lived in the North River area before settling in Cosmopolis.
She started school here at age 6 without knowing how to speak English. In 1935, she was the class valedictorian.
“It was because of hard work,” Don said about his mother’s success in school.
She was also a witness to a sad local event. The Cosmopolis fire in 1929 was visible from her back porch and it came close to her family home. “Mom hid under a quilt in her bedroom and had nightmares about it afterward,” Don said.
John was from Rosalia, a farming community in Eastern Washington. His family had moved to Vancouver B.C., by the time he started school and after a couple of other stops they ended up in Cosmopolis by the time John was nearing his teens. The family left for Oregon but John came back to the Harbor when he was 23.
John and Mary met after he returned and were married in 1938. He worked in a Weyerhauser mill. It didn’t bring him joy, his son says, but it did allow him to take good care of his family, which includes another son, Joe, who lives in Olympia. Mary was a stay-at-home mother and the family ate dinner together every night.
John retired from the mill at age 63.
“I don’t think he would’ve lived to age 70 if he hadn’t left his job,” Don said. “He was feeling burnout. He’d drag himself to work every day but retirement was his new lease on life.”
John also had a health scare a while back when it was discovered he had an aggressive form of skin cancer.
“It was supposed to (advance) to his brain but it went away,” Don said.
He listens to the radio because he can no longer see. It sits close to his chair so he can hear it. He particularly enjoys “The Dave Ramsey Show,” a call-in financial program.
Callers are urged to avoid debt like the plague and Don said the program “validates” his father’s philosophy to handling money.
Both of his parents are from Polish families, an extremely hard-working ethnic group, Don is quick — and proud — to point out.
John and Mary still have their mental faculties though they aren’t as healthy as they used to be. John was able to take care of his basic daily needs — including bathing and cooking his own breakfast — until he reached his 100th birthday.
Don thinks there are several reasons why his mom and dad are still around. Mary tended a garden and they ate a lot of fresh produce. Leftovers were dried or canned. John dug for clams and hunted for mushrooms. They raised rabbits and chickens. They didn’t eat many processed foods though John had an egg and bacon for breakfast regularly.
On occasion, John said, “I drank whiskey. Any whiskey’s good.”
They were moderately active. Mary did all of the yard work and John walked to and from the mill, which was about a two-mile round-trip. They square-danced regularly.
“And they didn’t worry. They were debt-free — even with their house,” Don said. “They slept easy because they were relatively free from worry.”
They spent money carefully and kept a cash reserve meant to cover expenses for up to six months if necessary. They were careful people. John didn’t have car accidents. No broken bones.
Mary was involved with their church but John was the more sociable one.
“He was a city councilman, shop steward and an officer in the Polish Club,” said Don, who’s the president of the Aberdeen club today.
John also went to the Washington State Democratic Convention and supported Eugene McCarthy for president in 1968.
Don knows how lucky he is to still have both of his parents in his life. The numbers of Americans age 100 and older increased 43.6 percent during the 21st century from 50,281 in 2000 to 72,197 in 2014, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s still a rarity — especially a married couple where both husband and wife are at least 100 years old and together 78 years, he said.
“There’s also a spiritual component to why my parents are still with us,” Don said. “Honor your mother and father. They took care of their parents.”