Louise Keyes is sitting in her apartment in Old Town Alexandria, flipping through a worn journal labeled "My Book." She chuckles softly as she reads some of the notations she has made during a lifetime that began nearly a century ago.
"These are my bills that I paid," says Keyes, pointing to the neat rows of cursive. "That's my church news. Every year my son takes me somewhere on my birthday. See, when it happens you just go and jot it down," she explains, as she looks back over the years. "Life has been good to me."
Her life began 96 years ago in a row house on North Patrick Street in Alexandria that remains in the family.
Theodore Roosevelt had been president for two years when Louise Nettie Bell was born Sept. 26, 1903.
Her first cousin Inez Dishman, 91, still lives in the row house with the front porch, which once belonged to Keyes's grandfather and has expanded over the years from two rooms to eight to accommodate a growing extended family.
"She was born right up in that first bedroom--all of us were," Dishman said. "She's quite a girl. She can talk the top off a hot pot. She was active in her church until her legs gave out."
If not for the arthritis in her knees, Keyes would still be living on her own in her home on North Alfred Street, not far from the house where she was born, tending to her beloved hydrangeas, roses and gardenias in the summer.
When she began to fear she would fall on her steps several years ago, she moved into the Annie B. Rose House, a home for the elderly and disabled, down by the Potomac River.
But she still goes to the church down the street from her old house, just the way she always has.
"She has been a lifelong member of this church," said Carla Thompson, the pastor at Meade Memorial Episcopal Church. "I mean, we're talking since her childhood. She's not only seen the changes in the church but the changes in the community as well."
Looking out a window in the solarium at the Annie B. Rose House, Keyes recalled the days when she ran around with Annie B. Rose herself, the daughter of a slave who went on to help the elderly and educate young people about black history.
She has been to Rose's house, has visited her parents' graves.
Keyes grew up in a segregated community and wasn't allowed to attend grade school with white children, but she nevertheless has fond memories from that time.
"This is a livable town--they don't bother you," Keyes said. "Some people are so prejudiced. Just because you're colored they don't want to live next to you. We didn't feel it. We had a good life."
When she was 13, Keyes moved with her mother to Harlem in New York City. Keyes married young, at 17, but when her husband died of pneumonia, the single mother moved back to "the family house" on North Patrick Street with their young son, Bertelle Knox, who is now 72 and a drummer.
She later remarried, and the family moved into the house on North Alfred, where she also raised a cousin and a nephew when their families broke up.
Keyes has worked all her life, mostly as a maid. Work was an important part of life, she said, and afforded her a degree of independence.
"I've always worked," she said. "I wouldn't have stopped, but I had an operation. Listen, honey, you have to have money to live. We've always been taught to work for what you get."
Her Alexandria neighborhood was her world, but she was not afraid to explore beyond its boundaries, often traveling to exotic places such as Hawaii and Montego Bay with Helen L. Day, a teacher she calls "my main buddy."
"She's always been independent," said Dishman, her cousin. "She loves to go. Even now. If she gets an invitation . . . "
The only thing holding Keyes back now is her legs. She leans heavily on her walker but not on other people.
Her son and daughter-in-law have a room for her at their house, but she prefers to live by herself in the one-bedroom apartment, which she calls "my last surroundings."
Her only regret, Keyes said, was not staying in school past seventh grade. And if she could live her life over, the only thing she would change would be her quick temper, she said.
She doesn't pine for the good ol' days and believes the changes she has witnessed over the last century have helped people.
When she looks ahead to the next 100 years, she worries about a world that has become an increasingly dangerous place for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"This is the most tragic year that I can remember," Keyes said. "All the hurricanes, all the floods, all the airplanes dropping."
She also fears that they're spoiling her too much over at the Annie B. Rose House, where they call her "Momma" and keep telling her to just relax and enjoy herself for a change.
"If I don't come downstairs, they come up here knocking on the door," she said. chuckling. "See, I'm blessed. I'm thankful to live to see 2000."
CAPTION: Louise Keyes, at the Annie B. Rose House in Alexandria, where she lives. Keyes recalls days spent with Rose, the daughter of a slave who went on to help the elderly and educate young people about black history.