An article in Saturday's Metro section should have identified the woman who turned 100 on Jan. 1 as Leatha Brooks. (Published 01/04/2000)

"You're going to be 100 years old on January 1, 2000," a woman says to Leatha Banks.

"I aaaammmm?" says Banks, her face filled with astonishment. Then her eyes snap shut, and she slumps, limp in her wheelchair.

But before anyone can utter a word, she opens her eyes and laughs.

"Being 100 can make you real tired, huh?" someone asks.

"Reeeaalll tired," says Banks, laughing.

Leatha Banks doesn't recall all of those years. Some of what has happened to her over the last century has vanished to wherever irretrievable memories go. So "Miss Leatha," as she is known at the Washington Home in upper Northwest Washington, uses humor to fill in the uncomfortable gaps.

"I love to laugh a lot," Miss Leatha says.

On the walls of her room hang fading color photos of parts of her life: Leatha Banks in Jerusalem in the 1970s, with dark brown curly hair, sporting a sleeveless top that reveals smooth caramel-colored arms. She is squinting at the sun and standing behind a camel.

"Oh, that's not the picture I took sitting on his back," she says, as her granddaughter Linda Coley holds the photo inches from her face.

There are photos of Banks and some girlfriends at D.C. Village, home for the District's foster children who needed long-term care. Banks and her friends went there regularly to take gifts and visit with the children.

She was raised in Bluefield, W.Va., and left home at an early age, though no one is sure exactly when. In a telephone interview, Banks's daughter, Delarea Coley, explained, "My mother was always secretive about her growing up and her family."

Linda Coley, 53, believes there was some sort of disagreement or abuse or some horrible experience that made Banks sever all relationships with her relatives. Delarea Coley, who does not want to give her age, remembers meeting a great aunt only once.

So, Banks forged her own path into adulthood, raising her child and the children of others.

She made her living working as a domestic, often traveling with the families she worked for and leaving her own child to live with friends while she was away. She lived and worked in South Carolina, New York and, finally, Washington.

Banks never learned to read or write. "She tried when she was older, but she got frustrated," says Linda Coley.

She recalls that her grandmother was "an excellent cook. She took me on a lot of trips. When I was 14, she took me to Niagara Falls," Coley says. "Whenever she came home, she brought me a lot of presents."

Now Banks's traveling is confined to day trips sponsored by the home.

"I went on a boat for a ride," she says with contentment, as Coley explains that the residents of the home cruised aboard "The Spirit of Washington" last year.

An independent woman since her early teen years, Banks reluctantly gave up her own place and moved to the Washington Home in 1993, Coley says. Now she is busy attending arts and crafts sessions and enjoys the visits of children and pets to the home.

Today, the staff that cares for Miss Leatha and the friends who are her neighbors at the home will gather over cake and ice cream to celebrate her 100 years of life.

Banks has no explanation for why she has lived so long or advice for anyone who wants to do likewise.

"I didn't do a thing," she says. "The Lord took care of me. He said, 'She's a funny little woman. She makes people laugh, so we're going to keep her around a while.' "

CAPTION: Leatha Banks, who turns 100 years old today, talks with Diane Wisseh, a Washington Home nursing assistant, near the nurses station at her residence.

CAPTION: Banks looks at snapshots with granddaughter Linda Coley, who says the Washington woman was a good cook and took Coley on trips with her.