There will be well-wishes today to the birthday gal at Vernon Restholm. Visits from family. Maybe some cake.
But as she turns 106, Edna Ratzliff will do what she does, she says, on a weekly basis:
“I don’t know why God leaves me here. It used to bother me terribly. God has done this,” said Ratzliff in an interview conducted inside her suite several weeks before her 106th birthday, when asked what her secret was to living more than a century.
“How come I’m the only one left? I had a marvellous sister, her husband, they’re all gone. All my friends are gone. This is a gift from God.”
God, as you’re about to find out, is incredibly significant to Ratzliff.
She was born to Lorne Abrams and Lena Miller on a farm in Elbow, Sask. – located on Highway 19 between Moose Jaw and Saskatoon – on March 19, 1917, though for the first 13 or 14 years of her life, there was some thought she was a St. Patrick’s Day baby.
It was an aunt who cleared up the mystery even though Ratzliff celebrated as a supposed March 17 baby with two others in town every year.
“They found my baptismal certificate which showed I was born on March 19 but I always thought I was born on March 17,” said Ratzliff, still sharp as a tack and with a memory better than most.
Elbow, Sask. was home to about 100 people. John Diefenbaker, who would become Prime Minister of Canada in 1957, was from the area.
Ratzliff was the third of four children raised by Miller during the Great Depression. Her father died from pneumonia he caught after hernia surgery when Ratzliff was six.
Being raised in the Depression, said Ratzliff, prepared her for her life’s work as a missionary.
“Everyone was so hard up but we all managed to live with nothing,” she said. “We made our own softball games in summer. In winter, the kids played hockey on frozen ponds with horse dung for pucks. We were all poor together.”
Ratzliff and her family never knew what it was to open a tin of food. There would be snow in Elbow but not enough to disturb or cover the rich soil where people could grow a wee spot of food. With the moisture from the soil, they could grow beets, carrots, and potatoes, but nothing that required rain.
One Elbow evening, when Ratzliff was 17, an evangelist came to town from somewhere back east. He’d been at a bible study group in Moose Jaw when he was invited to Elbow.
In a vacant store cleared out for his appearance, the evangelist preached the verse John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Ratzliff was hooked.
She accepted the Lord as her saviour at 17 and went to Miller College in Saskatoon to be a missionary. She was there for three years when she met Ed Ratzliff, fellow student, from northern Saskatchewan. Ed went to missionary college in Minneapolis and Edna joined him there.
When they returned to Saskatchewan, they were married in Elbow on Oct. 8, 1939. Ed was the first pastor at a church in Swift Current that is still functioning today, and then the Ratzliffs answered a call to go do missionary work in Ethiopia.
During the Second World War, Ethiopian tribes were declaring war on each other. At the time, the mountainous country was in mayhem, ruled by a minority group that was straight up militant. The King of Ethiopia invited the Ratzliffs and their three children to go to the scattered tribes.
“If we could build a medical clinic and teach education, he’d allow freedom of religion,” said Edna.
Off the Ratzliffs went by mule on trails to the southern portion of Ethiopia, 9,000 feet above sea level, to a tribe in the mountains at a place called Chencha which, translated, means “rocky.”
There, they started a bible school, built a medical clinic and taught locals to about a Grade 5 level. Thanks to some apples from Kenya, they introduced the fruit and the idea of planting orchards as the climate was similar to the Okanagan – hot summer days, cool summer evenings.
The Ratzliffs were off and on in Ethiopia for 29 years. Their third child, Ruth, was born deaf, so trips were taken to help with her situation.
The couple’s fourth child is a girl Edna calls her miracle baby – daughter Eunice, now 72 and living in Vernon, sitting with mom during the interview.
Edna was nine months pregnant with Eunice when she had to ride a mule to get out of the tribal area and to a town that could get her to an airplane to take her to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for the birth. That trip took three days.
Eunice was born in Addis Ababa and her heart stopped at the 7th Day Adventist Hospital. She was given oxygen and her heart resumed beating.
When it was good, mom and Eunice went three days back to the mission station at Chencha. The other three Ratzliff kids were at boarding school. Eunice was put on a makeshift hammock of two strong poles tied to a blanket and placed on the donkeys.
“It was like a roller coaster ride,” laughed Edna who, along with Eunice, returned to Ethiopia and the Chencha region for a visit at age 90. Ed had died in 2006. But all the buildings in the remote village he had constructed himself were still standing.
“The people worshipped my husband,” said Ratzliff. “They would point to the buildings and said, ‘The master did this.’”
After Ethiopia, the Ratzliffs settled on Vancouver Island at Camp Qwanoes, near Crofton, where Ed was the maintenance manager and Edna worked at the camp. They eventually moved to Abbotsford and after Ed passed, Edna moved in with Eunice and her husband, Larry, in Vernon.
Eunice revealed one of her mom’s secrets to a long life.
“She has good genetics overall, but she’s very disciplined,” said Eunice. Indeed, a look around Ratzliff’s room shows that. Bed is made, clothes are neatly hung in a closet and put away, books in the bookshelf are in order.
When Ratzliff first moved to Vernon, she’d go out walking and would always look at her watch.
“My goal was to walk for 30 minutes but more is better,” smiled Ratzliff. “That was my daily routine.”
She still walks but with a walker now, which she got at 103 after breaking her hip. She lived with Eunice and Larry until she was 90, then Coldstream Meadows and into Vernon Restholm during the pandemic.
Her four children are still alive – Ruth is in Ontario, Eunice in Vernon, Bob in Saskatchewan and Dennis in Kelowna – and she has numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The family is lucky enough to be able to read about Ed and Edna’s excellent adventures in Ethiopia. Edna’s sister kept every single letter Edna wrote home from Africa, and when she got back to Canada, she gave Edna the letters and suggested she write a book.
Letters From The Uttermost Parts of the World is a 445-page tome on the couple’s missionary work and their time in Ethiopia.