Dancing through the decades

Florence Neill gives herself a hug as she recalls the joys of her life for the last 100 years.
By: 
Jen Kocher

Spinning slowly to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” on the crowded dance floor in the arms of her son-in-law Larry, a white-haired Florence Neill’s feet glide across wood at a Chugwater saloon on Saturday evening. For a weightless moment, she is lost in time.

Her mind flashes back to a time when she’s a young girl swirling for the first time at a country dance in Watauga, South Dakota, with a man who would later become her husband. She remembers enjoying the electric sparks of young love, while overseas Europe tremors on the brink of a world war that would eventually take the couple to Bremerton, Washington, where her husband would work in the shipyards.

Decades later, after her first husband died, she returned to the dance floor in the arms of her second husband, who is now deceased.

Today, at 100 years old, she is still on the dance floor doing what she loves best, dancing to country music, the passion that has remained with her throughout her entire life. Dancing and music are the two constants in her life, and they help her remember those long-gone years that have seen so much.

Sitting in a recliner in her daughter Sharon and son-in-law Larry’s house on the outskirts of Rolling Hills, Florence gazes out the picture window. A trio of mules lazily meander up the fence line. In the distance, towering white windmills sluggishly spin in the uncharacteristically light breeze in what Larry likens to an apocalyptic alien scene. A petite, snowy white-haired Florence smiles beatifically at the scene.

“She loves staring at the animals,” Sharon explains. “It’s one of her favorite things about coming to Wyoming.”

That and hearing country music.

Florence – who spends the year rotating between her three daughters’ homes in Washington, Arizona and Wyoming – is still glowing from last Saturday night when she and the family went to the Stampede Saloon in Chugwater to watch Larry’s cousin Bret Kidd sing in Florence’s favorite band, Dakota Country. After a buffet dinner, Florence took a few spins on the dance floor with Larry.

“She has always loved to dance,” Sharon says with a smile.

“Not that I was such a good dancer,” Florence quips with a shy smile. Larry vehemently disagrees.

“She’s a pretty good dancer,” he says, nodding his head as if in agreement with himself. “I remember dancing with her when I was in my 20s, and she’s as good today as she was back then.”

Florence rests her hand on the cane next to the chair. After a century of life, memories are watery. Some are buried in the past while others persistently poke through the cobwebs of time. She has good days and bad days, her daughter explains, where sometimes getting dressed doesn’t make sense to her. Other days, her mind lucidly picks out bits and pieces of the past that she enjoys sharing with her family.

Dancing is one of those. Her early years growing up on a farm in South Dakota where she and her brothers and sisters “did a lot of walking” is another.

And a lot of work, too, Sharon adds.

Her dad ran cows and sheep, Florence thinks, but probably more cows than sheep.

She furrows her brow. “It’s been so long,” she says quietlywith a hoarse laugh.

Florence’s dad was hit by a car and killed when he was out herding cows one day. That memory stuck with her.

She also remembers her years with her first husband Charles as the couple farmed in South Dakota and later moved to Casper, where along with helping Charles farm, Florence mainly worked in kitchens, including the Red and White Cafe and later the Wyoming Medical Center, where she retired after more than 20 years.

For a stint, years earlier, she also helped make bombs for a company in Igloo, South Dakota, though today she can’t remember exactly what that job entailed.

Technology has long surpassed her, Sharon laughs. Cell phones are a mystery, and Florence can barely handle the cordless phone in their house without confusion. So many technologies have come and gone in her lifetime that she can’t recall one that really changed her life in any meaningful way, though she acknowledges new things always made the old ways easier.

Her family’s first car was an Essex, which even Larry the car aficionado isn’t too sure of, though he guesses it made for drafty rides during those cold winters.

Larry, who owns a 1923 Model T Roadster convertible pickup, remembers taking Florence out for a ride on a cold day back in the 90s.

“It was colder than heck,” he said with a wry smile, “and I took her up the roadway and asked her if it brought back any memories.” It did.

Florence smiles from her recliner.

And though she might look mild-mannered and reserved sitting quietly here today, Larry said with a sly grin, Florence has a bit of an adventurous past. Apparently when she and Charles retired in their 60s, they set in a VW bus out to Yuma, Arizona, where they spent their winter in a campground.

“They would roll up everything every Sunday when they went into church and roll it back out again after they were done,” Larry says appreciatively. “They had a ball. Florence was always saying that was one of her favorite times.”

Even today, her looks belie her 100 years, which she just celebrated in March in Washington. Along with eating a big piece of chocolate cake (the crumbs of which remain on her lips in the photos), she received an assortment of pjs, robes, slippers and her favorite — chocolate candy. A letter from President Obama arrived just in time for the occasion.

And other than a little memory loss, Florence remains in perfect health, according to Sharon, who says her mother gets asked a lot what her secret is to her longevity.

She eats well for starters. And not a lot, either. “Not like the rest of us,” Sharon laughs, patting her belly. “No, mom just picks.”

Florence is not much of a drinker, has never smoked, and has spent a lifetime working hard, Sharon adds.

“She worked hard her whole life,” Sharon says. “When she was a kid on the ranch as well as her whole life raising her family.”

She also likes to walk, which she doesn’t do much of when she’s staying with Sharon in Wyoming, because Sharon’s not much of a walker and plus, there’s all that gumbo.

Her sisters keep their mother moving, though, both at Charlotte’s house in Arizona, as well as her other sister Janet’s in Washington.

Florence can’t pick a place she likes best and instead enjoys her trips to see all three daughters, though concedes she likes those warm, sunny days in Arizona.

Wyoming, though, holds a special place in her heart. Here, she get her dose of country music and dancing . . . and a century of memories.

Category:

Glenrock Independent

Physical Address:
207 S 4th, Glenrock, WY 82637

Mailing Address:
PO Box 109, Douglas, WY 82633

Phone: (307) 436-2211

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