‘It’s like a fairy tale’: Centenarian recalls surviving war, finding peace through art

Federal Way woman decoded messages detailing bomb raids during the war for the German Air Force.

Take one day at a time. Keep it simple. Be thankful for what you have. Love friends and animals. Pray every day, and eat sensibly. Beer and pizza sometimes.

This is the life advice Irene Graham gives to everyone. She said it’s her key to a long and happy life.

She’s turning 100 on April 10, so she might be onto something.

Graham, maiden name Rama, was born in Italy in 1919, and moved to Germany with her family where she lived her adolescent life before moving to the U.S. after she met her husband. She married her husband Gordon Graham, an American soldier fighting in the war, in 1948. They moved to his hometown of Barnstead, New Hampshire, where they started their first business together.

It was a general store reminiscent of 7-11, that sold everyday items as well as Shell gasoline.

After some moving around for Gordon’s education and job opportunities, they finally settled in Federal Way at Redondo Highlands, where Graham still lives today.

Her family also expanded by two with their two children, Michael in 1950 and Susan in 1953.

Graham has loved art her whole life, and she’s been able to find peace in her projects. Most often, she finds herself drawn to sculpture, and her house is filled with different statues she’s designed.

She’s also dabbled in several different art mediums, including oil painting and porcelain doll making. Several pieces of her work have won prizes at the Washington State Fair and the Puyallup Fair.

Her love of the arts started in an arts and crafts store where she helped her parents when she was younger.

Her faith comes through in her artwork, and many of her sculptures are of angels and saints. One brass sculpture she’s incredibly fond of is of her little boy, Michael, who was taken too soon by a heart attack. Before his untimely death, Michael took after his father and served during Vietnam, later studying as an architecture student under the GI Bill.

Her daughter Susan, a court reporter, is alive and well today, and is excited to share such an important birthday with her mother.

“Mom is the most dynamic, generous, bigger-than-life person I’ve ever known,” Susan said. “I’m grateful for every day I have with her.”

Graham said it’s hard to believe how much life can change in 100 years, and how hard it is to explain to people.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” she said. “It has to be felt and lived.”

One of the most prominent memories Graham recalls from Germany is the air sirens that would go off during the bomb raids of the Second World War.

The deafening sirens weren’t something you got used to, she said. No matter where you were you would hear them and take cover. Most of the time, Graham and others would take cover in the neighborhood bomb shelter until the sirens stopped.

“You only think, ‘What’s going to happen now?’” she said.

Graham recalls the fear that gripped everyone when Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany. She said it was a cause of terror to be overheard talking badly about Hitler or the government. She even knew of a neighborhood boy who threatened to turn his parents in for their distaste of the dictator.

Graham was drafted to work as a telephone operator during the war for the German Air Force. She worked in Stuttgart for a time, and her job was to decode messages that would come in detailing locations where bomb raids would hit. Once decoded, she would alert the captain, who would then tell officers stationed in that particular area to set of the air sirens so citizens could take cover in time.

During the war, Hitler required that all military personnel would live in homes nearby with spare rooms, and this ordinance saw Graham living with a science professor. Every time air sirens went off, she had to help him carry his instruments to the bomb shelter because he was unsteady on his feet.

Graham added that President Donald Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of how Hitler acted during his reign over Germany.

“There are a lot of similarities they both share,” she said, noting their attempts to shut down any media that disagreed with them.

Her daughter Susan added, “She worries about any political figure with too much power, having lived through such a terrible time.”

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