Susie Lewis of Maywood will turn 106 this week.
Her ripe age is so remarkable I had to go see her for myself.
I had expected to find a bed-ridden woman.
But Lewis sat regally in a comfortable chair fully alert, her head covered with a fashionable white turban that complemented her blue and white polka dot dress. Sparkling baubles dangled from her ears.
Lewis’ face is virtually untouched by the two scourges of time: wrinkles and sag.
In fact, Lewis has the peaceful look of a contented child.
She lives in the same house she has lived in for half a century.
In her living room, a lifetime of family photos fills the tops of accent tables. Nestled among pictures of her daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, is a framed photo of the former first family.
Lewis walks with a cane, and a caretaker comes daily. Family members, including her 87-year-old son, Rudolph Booth, and his wife, also drop by daily to check on her.
But for the most part, Lewis is able to take care of her daily functions on her own.
Looking at her, I could believe that someday “100” would be the new “70.”
Centenarians are still uncommon, but the number of Americans above the age of 100 has increased more than 44 percent since the turn of the century, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year. More than 80 percent of centenarians were female.
Lewis was born in Helen, Arkansas, on Aug. 11, 1911.
“Why do you think the Lord let you stay here so long?” I asked.
“I think he let me stay here because I took care of my whole family. I took care of my mother after my father died. After she died, I took care of my two sisters and brothers, and I was the youngest,” the centenarian said.
Lewis had three children, two boys and a girl.
Her only daughter, Constance Henry, died in 2005.
Still feeling the loss, Lewis directed my eyes to a photo of Henry that was hung high on the wall directly across from Lewis’ favorite chair.
“She and her husband were married 52 years,” she said proudly.
As for her husband, Lewis said: “I outlived him,” with a sly grin.
Lewis’ father left Arkansas and moved his family to Chicago’s West Side when she was very young. For a while they lived near Washburn Avenue but kept pushing west.
For a while, she went to the now-closed Medill Elementary School on the Near West Side.
“When I was coming up it was supposed to be real prejudiced, but I was raised up right next door to white people and we never had a problem. I went to school with all whites, and this was in Chicago,” she said.
“But when my kids came along, they didn’t want the white and black to go to school together. The neighborhoods changed. Everything changed,” she said.
In 1963, a coalition of civil rights activists staged the largest school boycott in the city’s history to protest segregated schools and the lack of resources for predominantly black schools on the South and West sides.
During her lifetime, Lewis has worked on a tractor farm, did housework, helped put together parts in a TV factory and folded clothes at a laundry. Her last job was for the B&O Railroad.
“I was about 69 or 70 years old by then,” she said.
Medical researchers point out that exercise is one key to longevity, and Lewis had an active lifestyle until she had knee surgery.
“I used to enjoy bowling and fishing. I loved fishing,” she said, her eyes lighting up. I used to go to Wisconsin, and every year I went to Canada.
I’d go fishing now if I had somewhere to go,” she said.
At 106, Lewis has some “good days” and some “bad days.”
On her good days, she makes her way to the Garden of Prayer Church in Broadview where she serves as a “church mother,” a sacred role in the black church tradition that is only attained through spiritual maturity.
Faith continues to play an important role in her life, she said.
“I stayed close to God all my life, and that’s the best thing I can tell people. No matter what happens, [God] will always make a way because he brought me through a lot.”