Lessons in living from a 90-year-old (former) stranger

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When 90-year-old widow Norma Bauerschmidt and her family rolled into the Lowcountry in mid-March, all she wanted was a good place to park her wheelchair and watch the Hilton Head Island St. Patrick's Day parade.

Within 18 hours, Miss Norma found herself riding in the parade in a green decorated convertible, being celebrated as a special guest, her son Tim at her side. Their standard poodle Ringo rode in the front seat. (See page 1A.)

"I just couldn't believe it," she said later in an email. "I have never been treated like this in my life!"

Two days later, she came eye to kneecaps with the magnificent Budweiser Clydesdales at another parade, this one on Bluffton's Calhoun Street.

The family, which includes Tim's wife Ramie Liddle, would spend the next two weeks enjoying our community's special brand of Southern hospitality, taking side trips to Savannah and Charleston to see more sights.

Over the past six months or so, Miss Norma has become something of a national celebrity. The now 91-year-old (her birthday was March 31) from Presque Isle, Mich., lost her last sibling, Ralph, in June last year, and Leo, her husband of 67 years, exactly one month later. Two days after Leo's passing, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

While her doctors were talking about treatment options, her son and daughter-in-law came up with another option for her: traveling with them and Ringo in the RV that has been their full-time home for several years. She chose the extended road trip.

Thus began the adventures of Driving Miss Norma.

Leaving Presque Isle, population 9,500, in August 2015 was a big deal for her. She left behind the home that she and Leo had shared since 1987, extended family members and a community with which she was familiar.

Tim later told us that the only reason they started the Facebook page was so that friends and family there could keep up with Miss Norma and know where they were. At press time, the page had 346,000 followers.

I could retell much of what anyone could read online, in local and national news clips, and on that Facebook page, but I'd rather share what I saw and what I learned while this amazing family was in our neighborhood.

Miss Norma is quite shy and soft-spoken, or at least she was when the big adventure started. But she is also vibrant, cheerful and ready with a smile and a handshake when meeting new people, something she is "starting to like," she said.

That was obvious at a tree-planting at Dubois Park in Bluffton on March 25, to honor Leo's birthday. Kids came up to her and she spoke to every one. A TV reporter asked for an on-camera interview and Miss Norma agreed.

Ramie stood back, watching in wide-eyed awe as her mother-in-law conversed easily with the young woman for about 10 minutes. "She just doesn't do this!" she exclaimed. "At least she never did before." Leo had always been the more social and outgoing of the two.

Miss Norma also has a lovely sense of humor. Just before the St. Patrick's parade, a committee member handed her a lapel pin that only the committee members wear. "Oh, thank you," she said cheerily. And then, "I hope this doesn't mean I have to do any work."

Miss Norma really does like beer. "Ramie doesn't like beer, so Tim and I are drinking buddies sometimes," she said. They like to try local craft brews wherever they go. While in Bluffton, they visited Fat Pattie's and had "number 28" (Salt Marsh Brewing's State of Mind Saison) and "I thought it was real good."

Miss Norma said she doesn't know any great secrets about life, and she doesn't have a "bucket list."

"I am just doing what's right for me," she said. "People think I have a bucket list, but I really am open to lots of things. I'm not trying to check off a list," she said, "rather, saying yes to living every day. It has worked out."

Indeed it has.

It is obvious by the way the three of them smile when they speak about and to one another, they way they hug and celebrate simple moments. There's a lot of love there.

For Tim and Ramie, this adventure is all about Miss Norma. They are sometimes in the photos posted on Facebook, but they prefer that the focus is on her, that she gets the attention and the outpouring of love and admiration.

What a wonderful gift this son and his wife have given his mother! Tim and Ramie didn't just invite Miss Norma to "ride along," as some accounts have said. They altered their lifestyle to include her, to go where she wants to go, to make sure she is comfortable, engaged and not alone in a nursing home somewhere.

Miss Norma puts it this way: "Tim and Ramie have given me a new lease on life." (Ramie says Norma's health has actually improved since being on the road.)

And what a gift she is giving them. She is living her life free of worry, free of burden to them. "I'm not in any pain," she said. "I just keep on moving every day. I don't have any regrets about living on the road."

She is very happy, and so are Tim and Ramie. Together, they are celebrating life as the adventure that it should be. And the folks they meet along the way are happy for them and celebrate with them.

Make no mistake, this is not a story about dying. This is a story about how to live. And Miss Norma is showing us all how it's done.

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