The wisdom of a century

Until fairly recently, living to be 100 years old was a rarity. Now, several hundred people in this country reach that milestone every month. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 70,000 Americans presently hold the distinction of being centenarians, up from 37,000 in 1990 — making them the fastest-growing segment of our population.

To commemorate this growing bounty, the Christian Science Monitor published “Lives of a Century” by David Holmstrom in its June 7 issue, profiling 10 centenarians from across the country. Two of those featured live in Western North Carolina: Mrs. Louise Randel of Hendersonville and Mrs. Carrie Lucille Holmes of Asheville.

Since these two remarkable women (who, between them, have more than 204 years of life experience) live in our very own neighborhood, we decided to pay them a visit. After all, it’s not every day you get to talk to someone who’s seen the world go from the horse and buggy to spaceships and beyond.

“Keep plugging along”

At age 104, Louise Randel walks with the help of two canes. She still drives occasionally — in a car bedecked with bumper stickers proclaiming such slogans as “I Support Greenpeace,” “Repeal NAFTA, Support H.R. 499″ and “Native American Rights Fund.”

“I try to stay off the big highways, because I feel as you get older, your reactions aren’t as quick as they should be to meet emergencies, and you have to take that fact into consideration when you’re on the road,” she explains. “I only drive now to the places where I know exactly when I need to turn and what street I should be on.”

Randel lives on her own (with some assistance) in a cottage at Carolina Village, a retirement community in Hendersonville. She apologizes for the untidiness of her home as I arrive, but apart from several stacks of papers and books, it looks immaculate. Next to her, on the couch, is a pile of knitting, one of her favorite pastimes — along with reading and playing bridge.

“Older people, especially, enjoy meeting younger people,” she says, soon after we sit down. “It gives them an outlook they can’t have anymore. You don’t get young people’s point of view if you have no grandchildren nearby.”

A former teacher and elementary-school principal, Randel still does some tutoring, helping one little girl with her reading and coaching three Japanese women from the Asheville area who are learning English. “They are very apt students,” Randel notes, “and when a person wants to learn, they learn.”

Born in Baltimore, Randel grew up in New York City with two sisters; their father was a mining engineer, and their mother was a progressive thinker. Randel attended Hunter College on a New York State Regent’s Scholarship, an uncommon achievement for a woman in the early part of the century.

Randel met her future husband, Rodney Bradley Randel, nearly 90 years ago at a Saturday-night dance in the basement of New York’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (where the two were Sunday-school teachers). Their courtship spanned seven years. During that period, World War I began and Mr. Randel was drafted and placed in charge of troops guarding New York harbor.

“I became engaged at that time, and I was very proud of my diamond ring,” Randel says, beginning a story she clearly enjoys telling. “When I told my mother I was going for a job [interview], she said, ‘You must wear your hat and your gloves, and you must have your shoes polished.’ She always insisted we be perfectly dressed. So I was interviewed by this man for the position of secretary — he was employed by a man named J.C. Penny. I had to take off my gloves to fill out the application he gave me. He saw the ring on my finger. He asked me, ‘Is that an engagement ring?’ I said very proudly, ‘Oh, yes!’ He had me hand him back the application form. ‘We do not employ engaged women. Engaged women get married and have babies. Married women have babies, so they end up leaving and we have to refill the position. It’s better not to hire them in the first place.’

“They couldn’t do that today, or at least they wouldn’t tell you about it,” continues Randel. “The only two jobs open to women in those days were secretary and teacher. Now women can apply for any job, if they’re prepared for it. And that’s good. It has made women more independent and more willing to educate themselves.”

Randel doesn’t remember feeling frustrated over the J.C. Penny incident: “When I came home my mother said: ‘Well, these things happen in life. Go look for another one.’ You can’t let things that happen to you get you down — you’ll never get anywhere.”

A witness to the great technological advances of the 20th century, Randel lived the history most of us have only read about.

“It was when the telephone and the automobile came in, when a lot of people could afford these things,” she explains, that life in the last century really began to change. “I can remember when my mother and father had a telephone installed in our apartment. To be able to call up someone, it was really, really exciting. It’s hard for you folks who’ve always lived with automobiles and telephones to understand a time without them.”

Randel also remembers the evolution of the trolley car, explaining how at first they were pulled by horses — with the driver out front, straw around his feet if the weather was cold. Later, they were pulled by electricity: Wires from the trolley connected to a power line above (eventually they were transferred underground), so that the trolley, as she puts it, “could just run along. You didn’t see how it was propelled; it just ran.”

Married in 1920, Randel and her husband soon moved to Mountain Lakes, N.J., where they raised two sons and lived for 53 years. In 1974, they heard about Carolina Village, then under construction. “It was just a horse pasture at the time,” Randel remembers. “[Highway] 64 was not paved, but we just liked the place, so we signed up for this cottage just from looking at the blueprints. We were living here by 1975. We had a number of good years together in this place.”

Randel’s husband died in 1988, and both her sons have passed away. “I don’t know why I outlived them,” she muses. One of her daughters-in-law comes down to visit from time to time, sometimes bringing one of Randel’s eight grandchildren with her. Mostly, however, she keeps in touch with family through correspondence.

“I was very pleased,” she says about the Monitor’s profile of her, adding, with a smile, “They were interviewing old people — that’s not what they call them — but old people. You never know from one day to the next what’s going to happen.”

About her age, Randel observes: “If you have your health and mind, 104 to me is no different than being 85 or 90 or 95. As long as I’m able to live comfortably like this, the years, as they pile up, are very pleasant. They’re very easy to live through.

“I’m not afraid of dying, because that’s part of living,” she continues. “Anything alive, anything that is born and lives, has got to expect to some day die — and if you don’t let it worry you, life can be very, very enjoyable, if you have your mind and your health. Those are two essentials of life: to keep healthy, and if possible, keep your mind alert. There’s so many things that are new today, and you have to stay aware of them if you want to keep up with things, which I do.”

What’s Randel’s philosophy of life? “Don’t worry about things you can do nothing about,” she advises. “If you let things that occur in your life, or to near friends, worry you, life must be very trying. Whatever happens, I just let it happen, I don’t try to manipulate it, I just try to live through it. Just let things come and go, and do the best you can to keep alive.

“I’ve never been unhappy with my life,” she continues. “I’ve been disappointed at times — things didn’t turn out the way I thought they should — but I found if you just keep plugging along, they just seem to turn out all right.”

Her message to younger people is this: “To me, you must always have a goal, you must always have something you want to accomplish. Just living idly from day to day must be very boring. … No matter how old you get, there’s always something you should look forward to accomplishing.

“Live life as it comes to you; don’t fight it. Enjoy it — and always enjoy being with people. People make life worthwhile. I’ve had a happy life. I had a happy marriage. I enjoyed bringing up the boys. When we moved here, I enjoyed living in Carolina Village, and I still enjoy living here.”

Randel walks me to my truck. She moves slowly but determinedly. We linger, talking for a little while longer; she laughs when I ask if I can quote the bumper stickers on her car.

On my way back to Asheville, I break down in the middle of I-26. It’s pouring rain, and I barely get to the side of the highway before my engine cuts out. I am miles from work or home, and I don’t have a cell phone. Later, I will have to get my truck towed and spend money I can’t afford. But something about my interview with Randel has rubbed off on me: I move on.

“More love to thee”

Babies glow … as do people in love and many pregnant women. Certain centenarians also glow; Carrie Lucille Holmes is one of them. She appears to literally give forth light, her eyes bright and unclouded. She’s one of those people who seems to know something you want to know. Holmes struggles to express what’s inside her at times, but she points to her heart frequently, and “love” is the word she uses most often.

We meet at MountainCARE, an adult daycare and health-care center where Holmes spends weekdays, when not staying with her niece, Mrs. Doris Brewer. The facility places an unusual emphasis on clients sharing their knowledge and experiences with on another — as well as their talents. Holmes herself has been known to give an occasional piano recital. “It’s very nice,” she says of her part-time home. “All the people I’ve come in contact with seem to be just as I want to be — nice with everyone.”

Born Sept. 13, 1900, in Greenville, S.C., Holmes moved to Asheville with her family when her father got a job with Southern Railways. Holmes’ mother, one of a minority of African-Americans at the time who could read, encouraged Holmes and her six brothers and sisters to get an education. As a result, Holmes graduated from a Methodist-run boarding school, Allen Home School, in 1917 (later known as Allen High School, it closed in 1967). Holmes was a day student her first three years but was required to be a boarder during her senior year.

In her teens, Holmes became a Christian Scientist. “I’ve always been a person that loved to Bible-read,” she reveals. “I fell in love with Christian Science [after meeting a member of the church]. It met so many needs that needed to be met,” she explains, adding that some physical difficulties later on “caused me to be more in the Science. It helps you every minute.”

In 1922, she married Luwaugh Holmes, who worked as a handyman and dining-car cook (the latter considered a good job, compared to others available to African-Americans in those days). The couple moved to Massachusetts — living both in Boston and in Wilbraham — where they had a son (who passed away as an infant) and a daughter. Holmes worked as a homemaker and a seamstress while in Massachusetts.

She returned to the Asheville area seven years ago; her husband had died in 1972 and her daughter in 1982. Though her sister had urged her to return to the area much earlier on, it wasn’t until Holmes experienced a quite serious illness (and after her sister had already passed away herself) that she finally came back to Asheville to live with her niece, eventually regaining her health.

Although Holmes grew up in a time of tense race relations, mostly what she remembers is her loving family and community: “When I came along, the people I lived with, we got along together. I never looked for prejudice, so I didn’t see it. Some sisters and brothers might be prejudiced, but I’ve seen them overcome that. You just have to let that go. If people aren’t kind, I don’t let it bother me.”

About the changes she’s seen along the way, Holmes remarks: “I’ve seen more love as I go along. It may be just me, but everyone who comes to me is love — something about them is about love.”

“I know a lot of people are looking for love,” she answers, when I ask her what she thinks about the apparent lack of communication between generations these days. “I think more and more people are coming together. It may look a little bit off at times, but it’s not true.”

What are Holmes’ favorite pastimes? “I’ll tell you the truth. I was the oldest child out of seven; I was with mother all the time, making bread, helping out. I was very active: sewing, fancy work, knitting, I love those things.”

What does she like to cook? “I like to cook good cooked beans, and most any vegetable — and I cook that very well — and I like to make meat loaf and things like that.”

“I really love my [Christian] Science,” she says, sharing some of her other pleasures. “I do my lessons. [I like] any good reading. I like to be active, in any activity that will keep me going. Tell you the truth, I almost didn’t realize I was almost 100. I enjoy my life, enjoy my friends.”

Holmes’ philosophy is simple. “I’m just happy to be here. If we just trust the right spirit, we have nothing to worry about. Life is good. Life is great. Whatever the will of God is, I always seem to adjust to it.

“Love is love with me,” she adds. “If you have love down in your heart, it’s not going to run away from you. Everything works out for good.”

What message would Holmes give to younger people? “What I’d give them would be love,” she answers. “And truth. With that, they would naturally have peace, and with that peace, ‘more love to thee’ every day. It comes natural.”

I ask her if I can give her a hug before I leave; she seems pleased. “I’ve been a hugger since I was that small,” she reveals. “I use to hug my father’s boots when he got home from work.”

Does she think there’ll be a celebration for her birthday this year? “There’ll be a celebration,” she says, smiling. “I’ll be going around shaking hands, getting lots of hugs — that’s what I like.”

Note: This interview took place earlier this summer. On Sept. 13, a drop-in reception was held for Mrs. Holmes at MountainCARE to celebrate her 100th birthday. The theme of the party was the color purple, after the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, which begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” Among the more than 100 in attendance were such notables as a representative from Congressman Charles Taylor’s office, as well as Mayor Leni Sitnick, who presented Holmes with a signed proclamation from City Council designating Sept. 13 as Lucille Holmes Day. During the proceedings, Holmes sang a solo rendition of her favorite hymn, “In the Garden.”

To read David Holmstrom’s interview of Randel and Holmes, log on to the Christian Science Monitor‘s Web site (www.csmonitor.com/livesofacentury).

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