For this special edition of Sepia Saturday the theme is “100” because it is the 100th Sepia Saturday event.
Participants can take this really anywhere, but I immediately knew what my blog post would be. I am going to tell you about the only person I have known who lived to 100 years of age, and she happens to have been a unique individual. While I only knew her for the last 30 or so years of her life, she loved to tell stories every time we saw her, so I heard quite a lot about her escapades and there is no way I can do those stories justice. I hope this doesn’t become too long, because there are so many memories, it is difficult to boil them down to “the best ones.” Hopefully my mom or sister will chime in on the comments.
My dad worked for an industrial machinery company in Los Angeles and the secretary there was named Winnifred Nehring. She was as old as the year was, because she was born in the first month of the first year of the new century – January 27, 1900. Even in the 60s when my dad met her, that was something interesting. On top of that, she was a spitfire. Winnifred dutifully retired from the company at age 65, and one year later my sister was born, only two days after Winnifred’s birthday. So began the annual gathering to celebrate birthdays. My parents surely thought “oh this will last a few years and then fade off into the sunset.” Winnifred had other ideas! She was part of a family known for longevity.
Winnifred was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and later her family moved to Prince Rupert. Her father was the first person to bring cattle to Cameron Cove, where they lived and the area was renamed Cow Bay for the cows swimming from barges to shore. She was one of 12 children! In 1923, she came to Los Angeles, California – which she pronounced Los Angle-ese – with her sister Annie to visit and get jobs, and just decided to stay. She was naturalized as a US citizen March 22, 1928.
She had this certain way of speaking, with a very feminine lilt that turned up some sounds and drew out others. It is difficult to explain, but if you could imagine an aging flapper, that might capture it. She had a girly giggle and she honest to goodness tittered when she laughed. She always had her hankie available, and she would smile and give you this coy look, like you were sharing a secret with her. She had beautiful gray eyes.
One of her jobs in the ’30s was as a receptionist for a “doctor.” I use the term lightly, because this
quack person laid rocks on the patient and then shined a light on them, heating up the patient’s skin. He got people to believe that the light shining through the rock transferred healing properties from the rock to their body. People paid plenty of money for these treatments and he apparently had some well known clients. Winnifred would never say the names because she was too kind and didn’t want to sully their names with “old stories.” In the late 90s, she had cataract surgery which used laser light and she could see the colors. That procedure confirmed for her after all those years that the rock doctor had been right after all!
One adventure she had was to find out “what the lesbians were all about.” I kid you not. This might have been in the 60s, I’m not sure any more. She had heard there was a lesbian bar close to where she lived, so she went over one evening. Now, Winnifred was as straight as they came, but she was just very curious about life. So here she is, the last Victorian lady in Los Angeles, in a lesbian bar. She was having a nice time, the lesbians were buying her drinks, and as it happens, she has to visit the ladies room. Well, one of the patrons took this to mean something other than the call of nature, and followed her into the bathroom. There’s Winnifred taking care of her business when the other lady starts trying to get into the stall with her. This carried on, Winnifred saying “no, I’m busy in here” and the lesbian trying to crawl under the stall door! It ended with Winnifred – 5′ 2″ on a tall day – standing on the toilet seat hitting the woman on the head with her pocketbook!
When she was in her 80s, she resurfaced the roof of her apartment building. By herself. She just had the delivery guys carry the buckets of tar up to the roof for her. When she was in her 90s, she took a job taking care of “an old lady.” Who was only a year or two older. She had at least a year’s supply of food and water stored in her apartment and she was forever trying to get my dad to take a subscription to some doomsday newsletter. She never married, but there is a rumor that her relationship with a certain real estate agent helped her buy her apartment building, which she owned for over 50 years. It over looked one of the earliest movie studios in Los Angeles in a prime location and it was worth well over seven figures when she passed on.
Every year that I can remember, we had a family luncheon with Winnifred. For many years, we went to a restaurant, but finally her hearing got too bad so we started having her over for lunch to my parent’s house. For a while she drove herself to our place (first in her Nash Rambler and later in her little Mercedes coupe), and you know she always brought nice presents for us, but one year someone stole her car, and she just didn’t replace it. Honestly, she was something like 85 when that happened so probably for the best. When my sister and I could drive, we would drive the 50 miles to her house, pick her up and bring her the 50 miles back, have lunch, then repeat the process in reverse. It became difficult because she had to read lips after a while, so two of us would go on the trip – one would drive while the other would talk. In mid 1999, we decided we were going to have a little party for her 100th birthday. I wrote to all the local politicians, Congressmen for our state, and to then-President Clinton. All of them, from the Mayor of Los Angeles to President and Mrs. Clinton sent something. The California Legislature made an official Declaration proclaiming their recognition of her 100th birthday. It was so beautiful and colorful, and I wish I had had a color copier available to me. We gave her all these letters, and “my land” was she impressed! She was so modest, she never considered that someone of such importance would write a letter to her.
Every year, her tenants knew when she would be coming over to our place for our luncheon. She talked about it for weeks before and on the day of, she wouldn’t eat a thing so she would have a nice appetite. She enjoyed having her one alcoholic drink, and she reveled in all the attention being focused on her. Once, one of her tenants told me that she would talk about the luncheon for the entire year. It was a highlight of her life and I feel very happy to have been a part of that. After her 100th celebration, we had her over one more time, but her health began to fail. She had outlived all her brothers and sisters, and all their children too. She had a grand or great grand nephew caring for her by that point, and he let us know she had had a heart attack, and while she had survived, she was quite frail. It was decided that would would discontinue the luncheons. I still feel sad about that, but I understand that a lot of activity for her was much more stressful than it would be for the rest of us.
Winnifred passed away on January 1, 2006, at only 26 days shy of her 106th birthday. I miss you, wonderful lady, but I will never forget you.