A yesteryear sprint to the door is now out of the question. At a visitor's knock, she grabs the back of a chair to steady her spindly legs. "I'm coming," escapes her lips with effort. One of her emaciated arms flies out to a table as she inches along to the front hallway. A doorknob offers rest as she signals she must get her breath before undoing the latch.
Her cane misplaced, she uses her walker, buried beneath freshly laundered housedresses and nightgowns she no longer has the energy to hang up to dry. But these inconveniences are of no significance to this single woman, soon to be 99, who lives alone and who is, she says, "patiently waiting to die."
Nannie J, as she is called by her close friends, is ill. Twice she has been found unconscious on the living room floor of her three-story home by friends and neighbors worried that her telephone went unanswered too long. Within the last five years, Nannie J has been struck down by two strokes and fought a nearly losing battle with pneumonia. But her spirit and icy independence have not only pulled her through, but kept her out of what she perceives to be the "clutches" of those who operate nursing homes for the elderly.
"Those people can't wait for you to die, they starve you and ignore you to hurry up the process," said Nannie J, screwing up her shriveled face to remember a recent four-week stay in a private nursing home. "I couldn't take it, I had to blast my way out of there," she said. Confined to the home during February after a three-week hospitalization for internal bleeding, she went against her will, too weak to kick and scream, but well enough to glare and make plain in soft-spoken, bullet-biting words that home is where she wanted to be--home where she is boss and where privately, over the past five years, she has been making preparations to die. When she regained full use of her tongue, the strength of a cane-thumping right arm, and the coordination of her phone-dialing finger, Nannie J sprung herself from what she termed "imprisonment."
Returned to her Northwest Washington home of 33 years near the crime and the drugs of the 14th Street strip, Nannie J resumed her post in the living room chair by the three front windows and peered out at the life passing by while she busied herself with pencil and paper planning her death.
"I've already bought the casket and the flowers and arranged for my viewing and funeral at two churches. Now all I've got to do is die," said Nannie J, her eyes sparkling behind a pair of thick, no-nonsense glasses.
She's taken other steps beyond the stage direction, choreography (she has lined up the pallbearers), and over-all production of her funeral. In her will, she has left $30,000 saved over the years, solely for the perpetual care and upkeep of the cemetery of the first Baptist church she joined, located near her home in Spotsylvania County, Va.
"I'm going to be buried there because they're digging up too many graveyards in the District to build things," she explained. "When I go, I don't wish to be disturbed."
Five years ago, she began selling and giving away her furniture and belongings. "I don't want people battling over my earthly goods after I'm gone, so I'm getting rid of all that stuff now," she said.
Nannie J has systematically emptied two floors of furniture and belongings--a piano, beds, two sewing machines, chairs, sofas, clothing, cooking utensils and anything else friends, relatives, or neighbors wished to claim for practical or sentimental reasons. Unsentimental Nannie J now lives on one floor of the house, making do with two rooms--the front living room where she dines on simple foods and watches the passing parade, and her bedroom, recently converted from a parlor, that abuts the living room. As she slowly makes her way from one room to the other, her 103 pounds often brushes against the tags affixed to the few remaining appliances and furniture she still keeps to maintain life.
On the tags are written the names of the persons who will receive the designated item upon her death. The refrigerator is tagged. Two chairs are tagged. A card table, a dividing screen, a bed, a lamp, a hotplate. All tagged.
Nannie J is hard of hearing yet refuses to wear her hearing aid because, she said, it's too cumbersome. She refuses to be "distracted" by radio or television. The loudest noise in her home is the hourly chiming of a grandmother clock (also tagged) located on a wall in her bedroom. A phone in each room keeps her in daily contact with an ailing neighbor who is also in his 90s--an arrangement that has lasted nearly 30 years.
"Basically, we call one another to find out whether we're still alive," said Nannie J.
Even when well, she remains upright for no more than four hours a day. In her accustomed place in the living room, she often gazes at a wall photograph that shows a young Nannie J, challenging the camera lens with her smooth brown skin, lustrous upswept hair, erect posture, and an unmistakable pride glinting a sense of self-awareness through her brown eyes.
"You wouldn't know I was once beautiful, that I'm that lady in the photograph. Now, I'm skin wrapped around bone. Old and ugly. It isn't ladylike to look this way," she said as she tugged on her ever-present granny-cap bonnet, worn to cover her few remaining wisps of gray hair.
Nannie J's steely constitution was developed early, at home, in Spotsylvania County, where she said she was born in 1883. Her father was a blacksmith who, in addition to shoeing horses, made wagon wheels and made and repaired harnesses. As a youngster, Nannie J learned her life-long occupation there as she helped her father sew and make harnesses at home by the fireplace. A needle and thread would challenge her creative mind well into her 80s.
Nannie J, along with her five sisters and a brother, were taught the work ethic early and all participated in the wood-hauling, water-bucket-carrying and floor-scrubbing of rural life.
"The work was hard but it was a good life," said Nannie J. "We learned to share and help one another."
Nannie J married at home in Thornsburg, Va., leaving there for the District in 1905. That year she became a member of the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 1225 R St. NW. Four years after her arrival and two years after the birth of her daughter Naomi Louise, Nannie J opened a sewing school for girls, where she charged a small fee to teach dress designing and pattern-making.
Although her marriage ended in divorcein the early 1920s, Nannie J was becoming known as an expert craftswoman and her school was making a good reputation for itself--this development and her love for her daughter prevented her from brooding over the marital break-up she considered inevitable.
She designed and tailored clothing for her white, paying clientele, most of whom lived in Chevy Chase, she said. To get ideas for patterns and keep abreast of the latest fashions, she studied the display windows at Garfinckel's and Woodward & Lothrop.
"I wasn't allowed inside the store because I was black, so I would go down in the evening after the stores had closed, and study the windows from every angle," said Nannie J. "I would make mental notes, steal the designer's idea, return home and make the dress for a cheaper price."
In the black community, Nannie J operated differently. There her labor was free. During the Depression, she made suits, pants, and dresses at no cost for the poor. When word of what she was doing received publicity, the Works Projects Administration, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, sent her surplus military garments so that she and her students could continue to make badly needed garments for poor families. Nannie J performed the same function for members of her church. The elderly and the poor at Metropolitan Baptist knew they could depend on her for any mending or repairs they might need.
"She also worked in our kitchen preparing dinners and regularly would reward our staff with homemade peach pies," remembers Lena Price Smith, former secretary of the church. Smith also remembered Nannie J's home: "It always smelled good from her baking and canning. She wouln't allow you to leave without giving you a jar of her pickles, relish or jelly."
"She is a woman of amazing intellect," said H. Beecher Hicks, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist, speaking of Nannie J.
All through the years with what spare time she has had, she has written poetry and short stories. "I have ideas, many, many ideas. I still do," Nannie J said recently.
Nannie J disbanded her sewing school in 1947 and joined the post office to mend mail bags. That lasted only four years because the department wished to transfer her to another city, but she refused because she did not wish to leave her newly purchased home. For income, she took in roomers after contacting the YMCA and asking for "well-behaved gentlemen." Nannie J said she had to stop taking in boarders when her health began to fail.
"I would not have been able to keep the rooms spotless, the linen crisp--I had to stop," said Nannie J, who, being penny-wise, had saved enough money to take care of herself. "I never spent my money foolishly," she said.
Nannie J has outlived her daughter and all of her family except two ailing sisters. Friends stop by to shop for her, cook for her and mow her lawn. But she is, mostly, alone. She has a fetish for cleanliness. Even if she dosen't eat, she washes herself thoroughly every day. Her meals are cooked on a hotplate on top of a radiator in her hallway. Often she hasn't eaten, because she didn't have the strength to open her refrigerator door. Her mind, however, still races with precision.
A visitor is about to leave her home. "Open the refrigerator door," she commands. This done, she says, "Take some fruit."
As the visitor leaves with an apple and a banana, he takes a last look at Nannie J sitting at her command post by the windows, impatient with her infirmities, spirit blazing, ready and willing to call it a day.
"Goodbye," she said.