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Lifetime of Love

As autumn dragged on last year, Courtney Ringsted accepted the sad truth that her grandparents were dying. Wanting to preserve their memories and moral values while they still were alive, Courtney sat at her computer and compiled a special list of life lessons. Across the top of the page, she wrote in big, bold type: "Things we learned from our grandparents."

Then she set about building the list. The first entry stated: "Never let a day get by without giving your partner a kiss and telling them that you love them. Be sure to kiss them like you mean it."

The words came easily, as these teachings had been ingrained into her; the list grew and grew, from practical advice such as "Learn how to make stuff with your own two hands" to fun little oddities like "When you get down to the bottom of the potato chip bag, cut off the top portion of the bag."

By the time she finished, Courtney's list contained more than two dozen entries. Indeed, Orville and Lydia Ringsted spent a lifetime teaching their offspring many valuable lessons. The thing is, we all probably could stand to learn a lesson or two from the Modesto couple.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Ringsteds' relationship was how long it lasted. They were married for 70 years. Beyond that, they were part of each other's lives for more than 88 years. It would be difficult to find two people who have known each other longer. Theirs is a rare story of longevity and devotion.

It began in the small community of Hastings, Neb., when their parents bought adjacent houses. When they first began playing together, he was 3, she was 4. The two grew up together, began dating in their teens and married in 1937. The Ringsteds had two children and moved to Modesto in the late 1940s, buying a house on Del Mar Avenue where they lived for nearly 60 years.

I spent an afternoon with the Ringsteds last summer, and wrote a story about them that ran in The Bee on June 24. A few weeks later, I stopped by and visited them again, this time with my oldest son, Sky. He had wanted to come along because he'd never met anyone that old before.

Orville laughed when I told him that, shortly after he opened his front door. He bent down to look Sky in the eyes and reached out and shook the boy's hand. The expression in Orville's eyes was one of genuine excitement and joy, and he peppered Sky with questions about his life. From the moment I met Orville, he struck me as an excitable, talkative man who found newness in everything, an interesting trait for a 91-year-old man. He was like fresh air. Honestly, his zest for life was one of the main reasons I'd gone back for another visit.

Once Sky and Orville had met, Orville moved aside in the doorway as Sky caught his first glimpse of Lydia.

"So, you've never met anyone in their 90s before?" she said, slowly rising from her seat in the living room. "We walk like this."

She slowly made her way toward the door, hunched over and holding her back as if in great pain. She walked gingerly, managing a tiny step every few seconds. Then she looked up to see Sky watching her intently. That's when Lydia quickly straightened, smiled and briskly walked to the door to greet Sky, who wasn't sure what to think at that point. Lydia took great delight in having pulled one over on the boy.

"They were such an inspiration," said Ana Ringsted, the couple's daughter-in-law. "They were good people who always helped anyone in any way they could. They were just loving, giving people.

"There were quite a few widows who lived on their block. Anytime one of them needed something done, he would go right over and fix a leak or make a repair, whatever. Sometimes they would hire someone else to do it because they figured Orville had done too much for them already. And he'd get upset because he could have saved them some money."

As their health declined, the Ringsteds took up residence at English Oaks Convalescent Hospital in Modesto, their rooms located down the hall from each other. Toward the end, the family would wheel him into her room and visit with the couple, but leave them alone to give them their space and time.

"They were very sweet with each other," Ana Ringsted said. "He would hold her hand, call her 'sweetie' and tell her he loved her. She would rub his hand and tell him she loved him, too."

Lydia died Dec. 13, two months after she spent a week in a coma following one of many strokes she suffered. Despite her worsening condition, the 93-year-old woman managed to hang on nearly as long as Orville did. The Ringsted family figures she was trying to wait for him so they could go together.

Orville's last act also was marked by kindness. On Christmas Eve, his family surrounded his hospital bed. It looked as if he would go at any time, but he held on another two days. The Ringsted family figures he was trying to hold out so he didn't make things tougher on the family by dying on Christmas. Orville died the following day. He was 91.

"He never worried about himself," Ana Ringsted said. "Even at the worst times in his life, his thoughts were always for his family. Even as he was dying, he kept asking everyone if they were doing OK, if they were going to be all right. He was such a selfless person. They both were."

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at tphillips@modbee.com or 874-5716.

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