The Rev. Dr. Marcus Freeman III, the senior pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church, San Antonio’s oldest African-American congregation, opened the small birthday celebration by standing and offering a prayer. Around the long dining room table the heads of a dozen well-dressed women bowed.
Rev. Freeman asked for God’s blessing on one woman in particular, the oldest woman at the table, a small crown gracing her head, her tiny, thin body hunched over in her wheelchair, adorned with balloons, including two purple ones, her favorite color.
Newlyn Childress turned 100 years old on Friday, and a roomful of longtime St. Paul’s members showed up at Chandler House, a Morningside Ministries senior care community in Monte Vista, to mark the occasion. Established in 1866 by former slaves and freemen, St. Paul originally was known as the “Colored Methodist Church.” Many of its families have worshipped there for generations.
I’m not a member of St. Paul, but I was fortunate to be invited to the birthday celebration, too. For five years or more, Mrs. Childress has been a member of a reading group I started at Chandler. We recently finished Winnie the Pooh, and before that I read aloud Alice in Wonderland and The Call of the Wild, always with a few seasonal poems sprinkled in between chapter readings. Reading aloud can be entertaining, and it can be soothing, a surefire way to help old friends drift into their afternoon naps. Tired minds seem to enjoy the cadence and rhythm and magic of verse as a respite from the storytelling.
Many of the aging listeners cannot remember, from week to week, the name of the particular book we are reading, so I often start by giving them clues about characters and plot lines until someone blurts out the correct answer. Calisthenics for the memory. Yet look up while reciting Poe’s Annabel Lee and you will see lips moving along with your own, the words coming back. These old men and old women, now in their last years, were school boys and girls once upon a time, pressed to memorize their lines. Now those lessons rise up from some deep place in memory where childhood experiences still live.
Mrs. Childress, who first arrived at Chandler in 2004, is now the oldest member of that reading group. It wasn’t always that way. There was one woman, Elfrida Korb, who at age 101 casually announced to the group that she was moving to a senior care center in Austin, as if she were changing apartments and cities just for a change of pace. That same woman was once neighbors in Alamo Heights with a now-prominent businessman in his younger, unmarried days. She once drew me aside and asked if I knew him, and when I said I knew him well, she confided that she once spent too much time peering through her curtains to spot him coming or going with his latest girlfriend. I brought that businessman, unannounced, to one of my later readings, to their shared delight.
Irish-born Maureen Halligan, whose name graces one of the Theater Arts buildings at the University of Incarnate Word, was in her 90s, I believe, when she passed away. Until the very end, her mind was sharp and her appetite for serious literature undiminished. Sometimes around holidays, I would arrive with juvenilia to read, something from Dr. Seuss or Sendak.
“Oh for God’s sake,” she snapped at me once after seeing the illustrated volume of fairy tales I intended to read. “Give us some Yeats or Auden. I don’t care what the others think. We’re not children.”
Yet the very old do, indeed, regress to childlike behavior, which is my older friends grow impatient if the cook doesn’t arrive on time with freshly baked cookies still warm from the oven. I often wonder if it’s the storytelling or the treat that is the real draw as residents fill the sunlit Chandler library in the assisted living center. It’s no secret that Mrs. Childress always gets a second cookie. Why not? She remains reed thin. In my experience, all of the very oldest people are thin people.
One time I asked the group who the oldest person was there. A dozen hands shot up from wheelchairs, walkers and sofas. One by one, we went around the room and people proudly shared their ages, stretching it a bit here and there, just like children: 86 1/2, just turned 90 and will be 91 soon, almost 93, and so on.
Mrs. Childress waited patiently and then announced, “Well, it must be me. I’m 96.” Bessie Combs looked up from her own wheelchair and laughed. “That’s nothing, I’m almost 98!” Mrs. Combs won, and proceeded to tell the story of her childhood in a cabin heated only by the firewood their father chopped and the children learned to haul, along with water from a nearby pump, at an early age.
Mrs. Combs, one of the first female mechanics at Kelly Air Force Base, was a pioneer, but she often said she was most proud of her service at St. Paul before entering Chandler in 2000. She and Mrs. Childress, once friends in the church pews, shared the special friendship of the very old at Chandler. That group conversation about age happened in 2009. Mrs. Combs passed away a few months later, just before she turned 99.
Alton Massey arrived at Chandler with his wife, but by the time we met he was a widower. His apartment door was right outside the library, and he would wait until he heard my voice reading aloud before emerging from his room, interrupting the group with a dramatic entrance in his wheelchair, the rare man among many women. He was handsome, always well dressed and sporting suspenders and never without a broad grin. He and Jewel Etter, who also had lost her husband there, met in grief counseling. Each had lost a spouse of more than 60 years at Chandler. In time they fell in love, and in February 2011 they married at age 92. Alton died in the summer of 2011. Jewel seldom comes to reading group anymore.
It took me awhile to come to terms with the fact that individuals in the reading group would pass away even as others would arrive to take their places. Residents always tell how much they eagerly await our reading time. I tell them that it is I who eagerly awaits their company.
The reading group next meets on Oct., 23. I’ll be looking for Mrs. Childress, asking if we have any newcomers, and introducing a new book. I might test their memories with some old poems, and I might slip in a few contemporary ones, maybe something by Naomi Nye or Jenny Browne. They won’t know the words, but they’ll welcome the soothing sounds.