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If I Live to Be 100: Lessons from the Centenariansby Neenah Ellis
"You people have so much fun now."
Victoria Williams, at 106 years old, was the size of a twelve-year-old girl. They brought her to me in a wheelchair. On the seat next to her was a black vinyl pocketbook, its stiff handle placed up over her shoulder. Her lips were pressed tight together. She was angry.
The health aide pushing the chair rolled her eyes as she approached me in the visitors lounge and said in a low voice, "We've had a rough morning."
"Miss Williams, would you like a cookie?" she said, coming around to the front of the chair.
"I want coffee," said Victoria Williams, loudly. The woman walked off without introducing us.
"Good morning," I said in my most chipper voice. Victoria Williams stared at me like a bug, expressionless. I leaned toward her. There was a faint smell of urine.
"I'm the reporter who's come to interview you."
"For radio. I just want to ask you some questions about your life."
Victoria Williams was the first centenarian I met. I had applied for a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to interview centenarians and I needed a sample tape, to give the review panel an idea of what my radio series might sound like. I was in a hurry; the deadline was soon.
I called the Washington Center for Aging Services, a huge home for the elderly in Northeast D.C. It's not the kind of place I would choose to live in. The aides seemed caring but stretched hopelessly beyond their means. I was taken to a lounge area where residents sat silently, some watching television, some in a stupor.
I was not surprised to find myself there for the first interview. It matched my stereotypes and I thought, This is what happens when you're old if you have no place else to go. I expected to see many more places like this. I also expected, at that time, that most centenarians would be like Victoria Williams.
The skin on her face was smooth and shiny and taut. She jutted her jaw, sliding her false teeth forward and then back, inspecting me, shifting her attention away from her struggle with the aide, whatever it had been.
"Here's your coffee, Miss Williams." The aide returned with a steaming Styrofoam cup and two chocolate-chip cookies on a napkin. Evidently, it was a peace offering, and it was accepted.
With her elbows on the armrests and her dark, bony fingers wrapped delicately around the cup, Victoria Williams held the coffee beneath her nose, inhaling the vapor.
"My mother and father died and we had to go to work," she started in abruptly, without looking up.
"You went to work after they passed on?"
"Part-time? No! We didn't no part-time, we worked if it was all day or all night."
I shifted closer to her right ear so she could hear me better.
She sipped the coffee loudly and said, "Ooh, that's hot!" Then she continued: "We had to work all the time. Didn't no place stay and pay no rent. No! We worked! We stay where we worked."
She put the edge of the cookie between her teeth and broke off a piece, chewing as she talked, not looking at me.
"You people have so much fun now."
I wasn't sure whom she meant.
"You think people have more fun now?"
"Yeah, you all have a lot of fun, setting down and drinking coffee that somebody make and give you. You didn't make and give us none. We had to make our own."
"Miss Williams, do you remember when you were a little girl?"
"A little girl."
"Do you remember?"
"When you were a girl. Do you remember?"
"Yeaaaahh." She dragged out the word and smiled.
"What was it like when you were a little girl?"
"We used to know a lot of little girls in our day," she said.
"No, I mean when you were a little girl."
"I was in school. There were a lot of little girls."
"Where did you go to school?"
"Wherever Mother worked, if it wasn't too far for us to walk, we'd go in that school."
"You walked to school?"
"Yeah. The teachers were nice to us, too. There weren't no nasty teachers."
"What did you learn in school, what did you study?"
"Studied everything. Graduated. Mmm-hmm. Teachers were nice to us."
Before long it became clear that Victoria Williams could tell only one story about herself and she kept coming back to it, as if it were a tape playing in her mind: She graduated from high school and then from Hampton Institute in Virginia, one of the country's first black universities, and then she taught school. She got work because she was highly recommended. People respected her parents, who were honest and hardworking, so she had "good backing" and got good jobs. She kept coming back to parts of this story no matter what question I asked. Often she would break into a remembered conversation, speaking both parts.
I asked her, "Where was your daddy from?"
"My daddy's son?"
"No, where was he from?"
"When did he . . . ?"
"Where was he born?"
"Where? I forgot. My daddy was born somewhere in New York or New Jersey. My mother was a teacher. She cooked and washed and ironed and taught school, too, so she had a good recommendation."
"Do you know where your mother was born?"
"Yeah! She was born down in North Carolina."
"And where were you born?"
"Near Hampton Institute. That was the hospital where people used to go in. People didn't have their babies out in the street. You'd have your baby in the hospital with a doctor, and when the baby's born, the doctor would say, 'She was a healthy child,' and they'd take you right in school. So the background helps to push you. Yeah. And then you get you another teacher and you do pretty good. 'Well, where did you learn that?' 'I learned that at such and such a school.' 'Oh, you went to more than one school?' 'Yes I did!'"
After an hour or so, I began to feel frustrated, deciding that I couldn't have a real exchange of ideas with Victoria Williams. There would be no stories from the early part of the century, only fragments of memories that I had no hope of putting in context. I'd just try to get some good one-liners and leave. Luckily, though, the health aide was listening in and had more patience than I.
"When you were coming up, when you were a little girl, did you hear much about slavery?" she asked Miss Williams.
"We didn't know much about slavery. We learned about the college part of a colored person. No indeed, we were above that! Yes. Mmm-hmm. He has to either be in college or have finished. He can't be out in the street. You can't teach him nothin' in the street. You can help him after he got in college."
In my deaf impatience, I failed to realize the richness of this question and changed the subject.
"Miss Williams, do you remember when you came to Washington?"
After a couple of hours, I said good-bye. The interview had mostly been a failure. I had no coherent stories and only a vague idea of what her life had been like.
A couple of days later I interviewed another lady; this one had only just turned one hundred.
"Rochelle" had a small, sunny apartment in an assisted-living facility. She was high-spirited and bossy but sweet, too, and a little loopy the day I met her. She assumed she knew what questions I had and insisted on telling me right away why she had lived so long.
"Ever since I was a kid, I drew people like Bies and I still do. When I come down to dinner--I'm not showing off, I'm telling you the truth--there's a lineup that passes me. Honest to God, I'm not lying to you. People admire the hundred age, but people have always been drawn to me. That's one thing I can really boast about. I always had friends."
She seemed nervous and impatient, and wanted to get this over with. I raced through a list of questions I had prepared in an effort to do a better interview than I had with Victoria Williams. The questions involved most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. But Rochelle had a fuzzy memory for some things. She couldn't remember the difference between World War I and World War II.
"Oh, now I'm confused," she said, her hands buttering above her lap, but with some prompting, she did recall the end of World War I. She was living in New York at the time.
"I remember the excitement. People went out in the street, they were so happy! They were so happy!"
Her eyes suddenly welled up.
"It brings tears to my eyes. That I remember distinctly. I was married by that time. I remember them rejoicing when the war was over."
She surprised me. One moment she seemed scattered and confused, the next moment she cried. I didn't know where to go from there.
"Tell me about your husband," I asked.
"Ahhh, that's a story in itself. There isn't much to tell. I fell in love because of his kiss. I fell in love immediately; nothing else mattered. And now, in my old age, I take inventory."
She leaned forward conspiratorily and mouthed the word "Nothing!"
She leaned back and paused. "I'd rather you wouldn't write about my husband. I thought I loved him. It was just a physical attraction. But," she said, "we were very happy. We had two beautiful children."
I could not imagine telling a stranger such a thing. I hadn't been with her more than twenty minutes. I think part of her was upset that she had revealed so much.
Rochelle said, "My mind is going. I can sense it. I don't know what happens. I become confused. I don't know what the hell I'm doing half the time."
Rochelle was aware that she was losing control and it made her agitated in conversation with a stranger. The walls of her apartment were covered with photos of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and I felt glad to know she was surrounded by people who loved her, who knew her story, who didn't care whether she could remember the difference between World War I and World War II. My presence was a reminder that she had changed and I made her uneasy.
From those two first encounters I learned to be more patient, to spend more time. But I took those interviews and made my sample tape for the grant proposal. I chose a recording of a bittersweet Scott Joplin piano piece and played the edited tape cuts over that, with the non sequiturs edited out.
I won the grant. I promised to interview twenty centenarians around the country, but I would need a better strategy. I needed to get them to tell me stories instead of one-liners. I knew how to do this, I'd been doing it for twenty years, but never with people who had so many difficulties. The dementia, especially, was a new factor and I expected to encounter it repeatedly.
I would have to relearn what I knew about interviewing, and I would have to edit these interviews in a way that would make the centenarians sound coherent without completely misrepresenting their mental condition.
The sample tape had a pleasant enough sound to it, but I did leave in a hint of Victoria Williams's disorganized mind.
"Miss Williams, I see you have your purse with you."
"Yeah, I carry it everywhere I go. That's my driving permit and things. Because I might run into something."
"You still driving?"
"Yeah. And if someone said, 'You have a driving permit?' 'Certainly, I do.'"
"Do you still have your car?"
"Yeah. I have a car. Mmm-hmm."
"You did have a car."
"I do have a car, but I don't need it, so I leave it for my mother to drive."
"Everybody drank water . . . and it was good."
Two years passed. I took a full-time job with NPR and had to put the centenarian project on hold, but a friend called and said he'd heard about a woman who lived nearby and claimed to be 117 years old.
President Clinton is on the radio as I drive to see her. He's answering questions from lawyers about Monica Lewinsky and I'm riveted. Early in my career, I was a newscaster, a reporter, and then a producer for All Things Considered at NPR, so when big news happened, I was able to do something about it: write scripts, make calls, edit audiotape. It felt like being part of history, if in a peripheral way. I've moved on now to journalism work without daily deadlines, but the adrenaline rush still comes when the news is hot. This is one of those great news days. I'll have to add it to my list of the century's big events.
I have an appointment to interview a woman who is 117 years old, and as I turn off the car radio and walk up her sidewalk, I have the sense that I'm walking toward the past.
From the Hardcover edition.
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