Marge Birk has seen a lot in her lifetime, but nothing quite like this.
When the COVID-19 pandemic kept her indoors on her 100th birthday and Easter Sunday, Birk was disappointed. If her life has taught her anything, however, it’s that she has to stay sharp, and with friends’ and neighbors’ creative plans to help her celebrate, Birk was hardly alone and rarely bored throughout the past month’s stay-at-home order.
“Just keep active. Keep going,” Birk said. “If you sit down and look at the walls, you’re going to go downhill, so I keep active.”
Accustomed to occupying her mind with card games and sewing projects, Birk had resigned to the idea of celebrating her 100th birthday alone on March 28. But when the day came, she was surrounded – at a safe distance – by friends and neighbors.
“I was stuck at home, but my church family came with signs and put them through my yard and all [around] my house,” she said.
Birk beamed from her front porch as friends from Grace Lutheran Church stopped by with “happy birthday” signs and colorful balloons.
“My birthday was wonderful,” Birk said. “It was busy all day long on my cellphone and my house phone.”
Birk, known among her church friends as “Saint Marge,” lives alone in the Woodstock house she bought 30 years ago, but she’s rarely lonely. Even under Gov. JB Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order, the time seems to pass itself in the distant company of Birk’s “church family,” friends, and Tilly (a neighbor’s cockapoo dog that often stops by for visits).
“I have lovely neighbors next door. They’re like family to me,” Birk said. “I’m just trying to keep my work going here, keeping my house up the best I can.”
Born in 1920 into a family of 10, Birk has seen her share of ups and downs. She’s grieved the loss of her parents, siblings, stepchildren and her husband, Vernon. The pair was six weeks away from celebrating their 60th anniversary when Vernon died in 1998, she said.
Surrounded by fellow church-goers and neighbors who love her, however, Birk hardly finds time for her mind to wander.
“I’m the leader of the sewing circle at Grace Lutheran Church. I’ve been with the sewing circle since 1972,” Birk said.
The church’s sewing circle makes quilts for Lutheran World Relief and other items for donation to local nursing homes. Amid the global health pandemic, some of Birk’s fellow seamstresses have been hard at work making hand-sewn face masks.
Grace Lutheran Church Pastor Ken Gibson said they often compare Birk to the Energizer bunny, because she “just keeps going and going.”
She’s just a wonderful, joyful person and everyone thinks highly of her,” Gibson said. “She’s an inspiration to everyone who comes in contact with her.”
Above all, it’s important for Birk to stay positive, she said. It’s that sense of optimism that draws people to Birk and likely has carried her to 100 years old, friend Kate Halma said.
“I loved her comment the day we surprised her – she told us that she woke up just past midnight and thought to herself, ‘What do you know, I made it!’ ” Halma said.
Birk hopes to celebrate with friends and family next year, when her birthday will fall on Palm Sunday, just as it did the day she was born.
“I’m hoping eventually when this all is over that I’ll be able to have an open house,” Birk said.