Mary Eliza Gantt turned 101 this week. They were going to have a little party for her, but she has been ailing, so the birthday went quietly.
Her family comes to see her regularly at D.C. Village, and the visits are usually about the same. When people come in she looks up from her wheelchair in the questioning way of the nearly blind.
Her eldest daughter, Aline Skinner, gives her a little bag of cookies and unties her gray hair, knotted in a small bun, and combs it. Her skin is light tan, with high cheekbones and a fine, bent Indian nose.
"Tell him where you were born, Mama."
"Tenth and G Street Southwest. I was baptized at St. Dominic's."
She has spent her whole life in Washington except for the years in New York City when she was married to William Kisted, a carpenter. After he died, she married Joseph Gantt, a Washington building contractor from Calvert County.
"My mother was born in Washington," she says. "She was part Indian. Her people were never slaves. My father was a drummer in Gen. Custer's army, in the band."
Mary Gantt's father was an Irishman from County Cork named William Atwill.
We talk about the presidents she met, Teddy Roosevelt and McKinley. When she was a year old, Garfield was assassinated a block from her home. She met Al Jolson once.
The famous names are fed to her, and she nods, she remembers. But what was it like? Did Roosevelt grin? What did she think when she saw him, what was she wearing, was it a sunny day? What did she have for supper that night, and how did it taste? And what did the children chatter about? And how did the steam swirl, rising from the dish?
We talk about the houses she lived in, the vanished neighborhoods of the old Southwest, the trolley cars. In the Depression the family lost everything, moved to the house on Broad Branch Road that later became the Children's Country Home. Her father did carpentry work.
"I worked for some white people, to help my mother," she says clearly. "I washed dishes. I had a brother and two sisters."
"Tell him your children's names," the daughter urges.
"Tell him yourself," she retorts briskly. They are Joseph E., Thomas A., Aline Elizabeth, Louise Agnes and Helen Regina, and Violet Kisted, now dead. They are a long-lived family. Her husband died at 95, her mother at 104. She lived in a series of private nursing homes after the Irving Street house was sold, the place where they lived 26 years, and for the past six years she has been at D.C. Village, the District's public facility for the elderly.
"How many grandchildren do you have, Mama?"
"Ten grandchildren, a lot more great-grandchildren." There are 22. "I didn't know I had that many," she says.
What does she do most of the time? "Nothing." Television? What does she like on TV?
"What do I like, Allie?"
" 'Love Boat,' I think. You watch that a lot."
Her formula for long life is "trust in God." She doesn't smoke or drink. Before television she used to keep the children quiet by reading them the funnies from the Herald. She had an operation for a tumor two years ago and hasn't been as strong since. It's amazing she survived, an official says.
"Mama, is there something special you'd like to tell them?" asks Mrs. Skinner, stroking her gray hair.
"I dunno," mutters Mary Gantt.
We always think, when we are young, how wise we will be when we are old, how full of the wisdom of the world, the secrets of life, and how we will tell them. When we are young.
At her 100th birthday party last Nov. 24 she was given a deputy sheriff's badge from Los Angeles County, where her grandson works in the sheriff's department. She wanted to know if she could arrest people now. That was a good day for her, and she talked about how she used to do the polka, and when they asked how she met her husband, she said, "Oh, I don't remember, there were so many of them," so many young men, so interested in the beautiful Miss Atwill.
The skin on her large, competent hands is translucent. Someone has painted her nails a snappy red. She eats another vanilla wafer.
"Ice cream and cookies, that's what keeps her going," says Mrs. Skinner. "A pint of ice cream doesn't mean a thing to her, it goes right down. When our boyfriends came to the house she would always offer them cookies and milk." She laughs. "They weren't always thrilled."
She hugs the older woman, who is chewing industriously. "Mama, you're a sweet old girl," she says.