One of America's oldest servers hasn't slowed down yet
BONAPARTE, Iowa — To understand the essence of Marie Hainline, you have to feel grit.
Not metaphorical grit, but literal granules of grit.
You have to get on a highway, take twists and turns until the road turns to gravel and then to grass. Walk deep into a cornfield, so far that all you can see is yellow and green. Bend down and grab a big handful of earth. Feel the dirt fall from between your fingers.
That’s the essence of Hainline, a farm girl so connected to her community it’s as though she’s rooted to the ground. Like a perennial, she’s dependable, locals say, and always positive. She’s got enough faith to know the harvest will come in, but enough sense to know you got to put in hard work to secure the right yield. She’s utterly devoted to her family and yet fiercely independent.
At age 94, Hainline still drives her Buick fast, still acts in local theater productions and still works at the Bonaparte Retreat, where her co-workers are pretty sure she is the oldest waitress working in Iowa.
Hainline's been cracking jokes and serving tenderloins as big as your face at the Retreat since 1984. During the lunch shift on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you’ll find her pouring coffee as conversation flows or waiting near the antique cash register, ready to seat the next batch of hungry customers.
"People come here to see her," said her colleague Elaine Cole. "And when she’s not working, she’s never far from town. You’ll see her come up here three or four times a day."
Hainline’s long life can be defined by numbers: 94 years; four kids; 10 grandchildren; 18 great-grandchildren; four great-great-grandchildren.
Or the eras she witnessed: The Depression. World War II. The Red Scare. The War on Terror.
Or, as Retreat owner Rose Hendricks offers, in the countless patrons who call to see if Marie is working before deciding whether to amble into town.
"I’ve fooled a lot of people," Hainline deadpans.
But it might be best to describe her life in the stories, and the little bits of advice, she’s picked up along the way.
When you can’t walk through mud, ride a horse
Originally from Stockport, a historic village in Van Buren County, Hainline grew up on a farm and was the youngest of five siblings.
She had chores — “feed the chickens and milk the cows,” she said — but she passed most of her time riding bicycles and horses and roaming under the country sky with friends.
"It was the Depression, but we went to town every Saturday night,” Hainline said. “At first, we went to silent movies out in the park and sat on a bench, but, after a few years, we had a real nice movie house. The movies cost a dime then.”
When the mud-caked roads from her house to the school threatened to keep her from education, she found a solution.
In grade school, she’d ride her pony — a swayback named Ribbon — and hitch it outside the front door. In high school, her dad rented a stall in a barn near the school.
“I loved it, but I bet I smelled like horse,” Hainline said with a laugh.
Hainline started school with about 40 children, she said. But graduated alongside just 12, as kids dropped out to help support their families, she said.
As the lunch rush started to pick up, she paused. She could see a few empty cups on her tables and every good waitress knows you can’t leave customers without coffee for too long, she said.
If Dad likes him, he might be a keeper
Hainline said she didn’t have a lot of options after high school, so she moved in with her sister and went to work at a local glove factory.
Bruce Hainline lived kitty-corner from Marie’s sister, whose husband owned a used-car business. “The kid,” as Hainline called Bruce, would always be hanging around, waiting to see if anyone would let him drive one of the cars.
Soon “the kid” and Hainline were dating.
“He was nice-looking and had good manners, and my dad liked him,” she said.
“In fact,” she continued, “he told Bruce that if we ever needed money, he would loan it to him and only charge 1 percent interest. That’s how you knew he really liked Bruce.”
You don’t need flowers to hold a wedding
Their courtship coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bruce soon enlisted in the Marines and was sent to San Diego.
Looking back, Hainline said, they both took for granted they could even get married. So before he shipped out, she took a train from Fort Madison to California and found a small apartment near the base.
When Bruce’s commander, Maj. Walker, heard of the impending wedding bells, he was sure the pair was entering thoughtlessly into a whirlwind marriage, Hainline said. In an effort to smack sense into Bruce, the major restricted him to the base for 30 days.
"When the 30 days were over, Maj. Walker said to Bruce, ‘Now, aren’t you glad that I restricted you to the base?'" Hainline remembered. "He said, 'No, sir, because we got married last week.'"
They’d been married by a justice of the peace, with two Marines standing up as witnesses, and “not one flower,” Hainline said.
The Hainlines were married for more than 50 years before Bruce passed in 2000 after a variety of ailments.
Back at her favorite spot near the cash register, the phone rang and Hainline picked it up.
“What’s the special?” she asked out loud, craning to see the board. “Meatloaf and greenie beanies.”
Soon after the wedding, Bruce told Hainline that if ever two weeks passed without word from him, she was to go back home.
The weeks passed and back she went. Boarding a train, this time pregnant with the couple’s first child, she struggled with the few items she’d collected in California.
A marine offered her a hand. She felt comforted, she said, knowing someday maybe her husband would be kind enough to do the same.
She stayed with her parents before she bought a little house in town.
“I didn’t have any furniture, so I took two orange crates and I put a top across them and that’s where I put my two-burner kerosene stove,” she said. “I had a crib for Linda and a bed.”
She didn’t have water, but was happy to have electricity, Hainline said. She carried water from across the road in buckets and took in washing and ironing, she said. When the season came, she’d walk down to the local orchard to pick fruit.
“I never was scared,” Hainline said of those early days on her own. “I just always had a lot of faith that it would all work out.”
“And you didn’t think about it much,” she said. “Working and getting on was part of life in those days, you know."
Bloom where you’re planted
After years of fighting on Pacific islands Hainline had never heard of, Bruce eventually came home.
The young couple partnered with her husband’s brother to share ownership of a farm. About two years later, the Hainlines bought their own.
After a few more years and three more babies, Bruce got into a bad car accident, Hainline said. He’d worked all day, blacked out and ran into a pole. Doctors told her he had brain injuries and possibly a broken neck.
Neighbors brought in their harvest as the Hainlines adjusted to their new normal. But Hainline soon realized she didn’t have enough to make that month's farm payment.
She’d have to go to the banker — who locals “thought was kind of cross” — and give him only what she had.
“I said, 'Well, Fred, I only have $500,'” Hainline remembered. “He said, 'Well, you know, Marie, $500 is a lot of money.'"
“That’s what we do in this town, we help each other,” she said.
Keep your money in the chicken coop
Bruce eventually would make a full recovery, but while she was dealing with his injuries, Hainline said she considered ways she could make money and stay by her beloved’s side.
When friends who owned the nearby nursing home told her they were leaving town, she moved to buy the business. But the local banks wouldn't loan her the $1,500 she needed, Hainline said.
The following evening, she visited the brother-in-law with whom they’d once shared a farm and told him they wouldn’t be able to afford to make the purchase.
“He said, ‘Go get me the spade and the lantern,’” Hainline remembered. “We went out in the chicken house and he dug up my down-payment.”
Inside the can he uncovered was the $1500 she needed. It was all hers, he said.
“Those chickens were a squawking and a squealing,” she added with a laugh.
Laugh at yourself
After two decades owning the nursing home, state regulations changed and the couple was forced to close its doors, Hainline said. She went to work at the county’s facility and was asked to retire.
She didn’t like the idea of staying home, Hainline said, so she got a job at the Bonaparte Retreat. She’s been there ever since.
"She’s dependable," Hendricks said. “More than dependable, she would work here every day, if I let her.”
Lucy Elliot, a regular, stopped in for her to-go order and gave Hainline a big hug.
“I met her when I was 21, and she was a nut then and she’s a nut now — a good nut, I mean,” Elliot said. “She’s got a great sense of humor.”
Hainline doesn’t allow herself to get negative very often, she said. Laughter, after all, just might be the key to her longevity — especially considering she's never followed any fad diet or new-age exercise routine.
“You know, there’s just got to be some good in everything,” she said.
Appreciate what you have, and do your best
As the lunch rush subsided, a group of diners approached Hainline’s perch near the cash register.
She began to make change for one and took another's credit card. The phone rang and Hainline answered.
“Look at that, I mean she’s answering the phone and settling with customers and running around waiting tables and pouring coffee and she has a smile on her face,” said diner Deborah Roe. “I know a lot of young people who can’t do that.”
But, for Hainline, it’s definitely not about age, and it’s really not about the money either.
She doesn’t need to work — though “every bit helps,” she said — she wants to work.
“I should pay Rose to work here!” she said.
For Hainline, this job is about living. And make no mistake, she said, she's not done yet.
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