Annie Ford slept sweetly in her bed next to the window. Her birthday cards -- bright tributes to a dear aunt and a nice grandma and a fine friend -- danced on the cream-colored wall over her head. Outside, the wind whistled a cold, mean warning. But the room was toasty warm.
Yet another visitor had come to call on "Miss Annie," to remark again on her age, to ask about her memories, to demand once more her "secrets of longevity."
This is what happens when you're 110 years old and the governor comes to see you to wish you a happy birthday. And everybody says you are one of the oldest living residents in the state of Maryland. Your naps get interrupted a lot.
But "Miss Annie" Ford opened her eyes and smiled graciously. She may have forgotten some details of her life ("It's been so long, so long . . . ," she said apologetically), but she never forgets her manners.
"Yes ma'am," she replied, when asked if she felt awake enough to talk. "I feel fine. Indeed, I do."
After a few minutes of conversation, however, her eyes fluttered closed. "Would you please bring me a biscuit?" she asked drowsily of a nursing-home official who accompanied the visitor. "With a little butter, please?" And then she was gone again, fast asleep. Miss Annie is a tiny woman, but these days, her appetite for both food and sleep is enormous.
In her second century, Miss Annie's world is Manor Care nursing home in Largo, a cheerful, plant-filled facility decorated in shades of rose and Wedgewood blue.
Out on nearby Rte. 202, midafternoon traffic streaked by -- places to go, plenty to do, hurry, hurry, hurry. The pace in the home was slow and gentle.
In the lobby, a gray-haired man in a wheelchair stared silently out at the highway. Beside him, his visiting wife patted his back with an age-spotted hand, her voice low and soothing. In the hallway, an elderly man in a bright green sweater grasped a wooden handrail as he guided his wheelchair along.
In the dining room, a dozen residents gathered for bingo. While a Manor Care official pointed out that there is more offered here than "the stereotypical bingo game." The fact is, they like bingo. A resident called out the numbers in a high, enthusiastic voice.
Miss Annie resides on the second floor, where she is surrounded by the more confused patients, the bedridden, and those requiring extensive medical care. She moved to the home in July 1984, when she was 108, after falling in her bedroom and breaking a hip. Her bones are fragile; she will not walk again.
Miss Annie was born Feb. 16, 1876, in Prince George's County. She lived the country life before it was considered chic, in the farming community of Nottingham, five miles south of Upper Marlboro.
She has outlived three husbands; the last died in 1935. Only the oldest (86) and the youngest (62) of her seven children are living, but she has 31 grandchildren and innumerable great- and great-great-grandchildren.
She spent her life cooking and cleaning for her family and for other people. One couple employed her for 55 years. She stopped working as a part-time domestic when she was 104, a daughter said. Now finally, near the end of her life, other people wait on her.
"My soul, Mama was a beautiful cook," said her youngest daughter, Mary Batson of Upper Marlboro. "And smart. I think she could have been a schoolteacher. She was an excellent speller. And she raised all us children alone. I'll always remember how she played Santa Claus for us."
The clarity of her mother's mind often surprises her, Batson said. "A few weeks ago," she said, "Mama asked me, 'Are people still living in my house? Are they keeping it up? Are they keeping it clean?' I had to assure her they were."
On another day, a visitor to the home arrived in the late morning, Miss Annie's best period. As she was wheeled into the television room for her interview, she could be heard asking a nursing home official for the identity of her visitor and seeking reassurances that giving the interview would not mean missing lunch.
Her hair was pulled into a single braid and she wore a pink and white sprigged gown. She was complimented on how pretty she looked. "Thank you," Miss Annie said. "I'm glad somebody thinks so."
She doesn't think so? "I think I look a little decent," she said.
What about all this hoopla surrounding her age? "I know very well I'm 110," she said, closing her eyes for so long a moment that she seemed to have fallen asleep, "but I can hardly believe it myself. I've got as much attention as I think I ought to have."
They do ask a lot of questions, don't they? "Oh Lord, too many questions," she said with a little laugh. "If they ask you one question about your age, that should be sufficient, yes indeed."
In the course of the interview, however, she politely provided answers to several questions, and even asked her visitor a question or two.
*On her naps: "I don't take as many as I want to take."
*On meeting her first husband (circa 1896): "I met him walking on the road. He just spoke to me, asked me howdy-do. I told him I was doing all right. He was a nice-looking man. He was a farmer. I don't remember what I was wearing, but I was looking good."
*On her favorite foods: "I eat anything. I do love fried chicken. How about you?"
*On raising her children: "Yes indeed, I whipped them if they didn't behave themselves. I want them to behave and be nice."
*On the nursing home: "Yes ma'am, I like it here, but I like the country."
With that, Miss Annie's chin dropped gently and she slipped in a short prelunch nap. In a minute, an attendant arrived to wheel her to the dining room. Miss Annie perked up and invited her visitor to join her.
The visitor declined, wishing her a nice meal. "I certainly hope so," Miss Annie said. "Thank you. And please come visit with me again."
Then she was off to lunch and, yes indeed, maybe next, a nap would be nice.