Ham and Martha Chiotti model resilience, devotion as they near 100

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO:  CHASE ALLGOOD - In their room at Harmony Guest Home in Hillsboro, Ham and Martha Chiotti are flanked by a wall filled with photos of family members--and by their plaid-shirted nephew, Lyle Spiesschaert (standing behind Martha).Ham Chiotti stank so strongly of rotting fish parts each day that when he finished his work at the fertilizer plant, neighborhood dogs and cats followed him the seven blocks to his home, where his wife refused to let him in the door. It was a wonderful time in his life. At least that’s how Ham feels now, looking back from the wheelchair in his room at Harmony Guest Home, next to his wheelchair-bound wife.

Martha Spiesschaert Chiotti is alert but can no longer speak, so her voice is now her thumb: When Ham says, “Martha wouldn’t allow me in the house with my clothes on!,” Martha smiles brightly and points a wrinkled thumb upward to verify that Ham’s story is true.

The two longtime western Washington County residents celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary this month and are set to turn 100 this spring — Martha in March, Ham in May. Over the years, they’ve seen farmland give way to housing developments, horses to cars, dirt roads to highways. And they’ve seen their own strong, hard-working bodies succumb to weakness and pain.

"They have more sadness now than ever before," says their devoted nephew, Lyle Spiesschaert of Forest Grove. But they're balancing it with humor, spirit and the power of long-term love. “Growing old isn’t for sissies,” says Spiesschaert, whose muscular frame belies his gentle voice.

A tall, leather-jacketed farmer, he sits across from Ham and Martha in their small room at the residential care community in Hillsboro. Spiesschaert regularly visits his aunt and uncle. “I’ve always been extra close to them,” he said. “They treat me more like a son.” It’s been difficult for him to watch how quickly the couple has deteriorated since Ham got up from his easy chair six months ago and fell to the floor, striking his head. When Martha moved to help him, she fell herself.

“I’ve been seeing myself slipping,” says Ham, a former semi-pro baseball player with a Verboort-based team. He used to swim regularly before moving to the Hillsboro residential care home six years ago. Now he hallucinates, has trouble standing up and the arthritis in his hand “hurts like crazy,” he said, “where otherwise I was full of energy.” Martha points her thumb up, indicating she, too, used to be full of energy.

'I tripped her'

Ham’s real name is Ambrose, which his little brother pronounced "Hambrose," and Ham was what stuck.

He met Martha at the Bird’s Eye Cannery in Hillsboro, where they both worked. “I tripped her, “ he jokes, unable to remember the actual magic moment they first connected. At the time, Martha lived with her parents on Spiesschaert Road north of Cornelius. She attended St. Alexander's Catholic Church in Cornelius, where the couple married 73 years ago.

They spent the first night of their California honeymoon with Martha’s sister Mary sharing their hotel bed — before they dropped her off at her San Francisco-area home the next day. “I had two girls, (one) on each side of me,” Ham says. Martha’s thumb points up. The couple had two children and Martha was pregnant with Diane when Ham got called up for Naval duty in the South Pacific during World War II. He hated leaving his family. When he returned, he savored the innocence of his children. In the garage one day, he heard someone talking outside. “Who the heck is that?” he wondered. “I went around the corner and here was Diane, a little baby, talking to a flower. It made me cry.” by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hold my hand, Ham Chiotti says to his wife, Martha, when his arthritic hand starts hurting. She holds my hand a lot to keep it warm, he explains to visitors. It feels good.

Three of Ham and Martha’s four children — they had another after the war — joined them for a big family reunion at Lyle Spiesschaert’s Thatcher Road farm last September. Spiesschaert was born and raised there. After a 14-year detour teaching agriculture at Oregon State University, he returned after the death of his dad — Martha’s brother — and took over the farm with his brother, Glen. That was 26 years ago.

At 65, Spiesschaert notices his own physical abilities slipping. He tires more easily. When he bucks hay, it's not so simple anymore. “I used to be able to throw the bales," he notes. "Now I kind of set them.” In four years he will have lived more years than his father, a hale and hearty man who was running the 4-H Wagon Train a month before he died of pancreatic cancer.

Saying 'yes' to life

As he ages, Spiesschaert takes his cues from Ham and Martha, who try to keep active by working jigsaw puzzles, studying crosswords, playing Bingo, reading the newspaper and watching the news. “They’re not going to give up,” said Spiesschaert, who followed suit at a family reunion in Sun River two weekends ago, when he let the youngsters drag him out for an afternoon of playing and sledding in the snow.

The fun with extended family is important to Spiesschaert, who never married and has no children, other than those he sponsors through a Christian nonprofit. His deep, unshakeable ties are to his siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles. That’s why he keeps driving to Hillsboro, wheeling his aunt and uncle around the care home, sitting close, holding their hands, looking into their faces, asking Martha questions she can answer with her thumb, redirecting Ham’s occasional confused digressions, promising to come back soon.

On this day, Spiesschaert asks Ham if he has a gift in mind for Martha’s 100th birthday. Ham doesn’t seem to understand. He asks a question about funerals. A few minutes earlier he’d seen bodies floating near the rosary-draped picture of Jesus above his bed — one of the disturbing hallucinations he’s been having recently. “Are you gonna give her a kiss?” Spiesschaert prompts. Ham brightens. “Oh, hell yes.” Amid the arthritis, hallucinations and weakness, a kiss is one thing he can cling to. That and Martha’s thumb, which is pointing up.

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