The baseball game had ended that warm Sunday in 1912, and Merle Snyder from Monroe City, Ind., couldn't possibly tell you the score. But in the crowd leaving the rural field, she saw a dashing young man in a horse and buggy staring at her. It was a life-changing stare.
At 16, Merle was living with her father, stepmother, and two older brothers on an Indiana farm near Vincennes. Her mother had passed away suddenly when she was 7. Her daily life was now a round of cooking, washing, cleaning, and taking care of a little step-sister. Her education had been stopped by her father at the eighth grade.
"I didn't realize it was a hard life," she says of a world of kerosene lamps, 10-cent bottles of milk, church socials, and girls dreaming about a young man with a horse and buggy.
Today, at 105, Merle Snyder Cornoyer McEathron is a bright and lively woman. She scans a lifetime of fulfillment and success stretched over four marriages. Her memory is sharp and forgiving.
"I married Louis, the young man in the horse and buggy," she says. "I thought, well, I can take care of kids, clean a house, and cook, so I guess I'll do it for myself." It was a realization of family life - and nothing beyond - that was shared by most girls of the era.
And Louis could afford a snappy horse and buggy. As a telegraph operator, he earned more than most young men in Monroe City. "I took rides with him after the baseball games," she says, "and we went to the Epworth League (a Methodist youth organization) on Sunday evenings."
One day Louis rode across the Wabash River into Illinois and got a marriage license. "When my father found out," she says, "he wasn't pleased. He had a new red handkerchief in his pocket. He gave it to me, plus $10. 'Now go live with him,' he said, and that was it."
They lived in two rooms above a store. But after the couple had two boys, and she took a parttime job in a general store, her husband had another plan.
"I knew things weren't right between us," she says, "but I didn't think he'd leave me." Louis packed up and left in their new car. "I never saw him again." His departure, despite the hurt she felt, led to a life of a different sort with blessings seen in retrospect.
She was in her early 20s when she became a single mother, highly unusual at that time. Friends stepped in to help her, and the general store owner gave her space "to make a dollar or two." She brought in milk, bread, dry goods. When her boys came home from school, they worked in the store. "I drove an old broken-down Ford truck until I was 30."
Later she opened a general store in Vincennes. "I picked a good place on a nice street, and we were very successful there," she says. The store was known as "The Biggest Little Store in Town."
She helped send her sons to business school. One moved to Arizona and has been married 56 years. The other was employed at General Motors for 40 years.
When World War II broke out, McEathron was invited to be the hostess and housemother for a club for 3,000 US Air Force cadets being trained near Vincennes. "They were such wonderful boys," she says. "I still get letters addressed to 'Mom' from some of them."
As the war neared an end, she moved to Phoenix, traveling by train and taking food with her for the trip. It was her first time away from Indiana. "When I arrived here to visit my son and new grandson [after a brutal winter in Indiana]," she says, "the oleanders were blooming, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven."
Later she got a job at the Westward Ho, the most popular hotel in town then, and worked there 10 years as a hostess and cashier.
Visiting a friend in Los Angeles, she became "Queen For A Day" on the most popular daytime TV show in the late 1940s and '50s. "I said I wanted to see some of the flyboys I knew," she says.
"So they picked me, and gave me two beautiful suits, and all kinds of stuff. It was the first time I wore hosiery, too," she says, laughing. As part of her prize, she went up in a plane and was flown all over Los Angeles and the coastline.
Back in Phoenix she met one of the pioneers of the city, Richard Osmundson. "We were married 10 years, and our families knitted well," she says. "He was a wonderful man, so honest and decent. We were in real estate together. I'd do the driving and book work, and he'd do the selling."
After he passed away, loneliness set in. She met a man who was a musician and played the organ at church. "We got married, but it didn't work out because I found out he was seeing other women," she says. The marriage ended in divorce. Wiser but hopeful, she went back to the Westward Ho and worked as a hostess.
Her fourth marriage of nine years was solid and happy. "He was a retired Navy admiral who had spent 36 years in the Pacific," she says. "He had traveled so much and was always interesting to talk to." He maintained a home in Hawaii, and they spent a glorious month there each summer.
McEathron sees her life confirming the old adage of living one day at a time without a lot of worrying carried into the next dawn.
"I was led from one thing to another," she says, still amazed that she is 105, "and things I thought were going to be a tragedy turned out to be the right thing for me." She pauses, then adds "I never had the chance or money to go to college, and I've missed it, but everything turned out all right."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society