By Sojourner Marable Grimmett
Imagine having the opportunity to sit down and interview a 105-year-old woman. What would you ask her? I posed this very question on my personal Facebook page and received over 150 responses from friends. The questions ranged from, “What was your childhood like?” “Were you involved in any freedom movements?” “Which invention over your lifetime has made the most impact?”, and “Do you have any home remedies for colds?”
In late September, I had the blessing to sit down for a video chat with 105 year old Mrs. Dorothy Wilson to listen and learn about her life. I adjusted my earplugs as I sat in a small quaint Midtown coffee shop anticipating her voice. Thanks to one of our National Church Residences’ staff member’s iPhone, I was grateful to see that Mrs. Wilson was residing comfortably in an oversized chair in the front lobby of her home, located at National Church Residences’ Clark East Tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
With a million questions racing through my mind, I started off by simply asking “How are you feeling today?” She replied, “I feel good. I’ll be 106 in November. I never thought that I would live this long. I’ve been asked so many questions about my life. How do you live this long? What do you eat?” I laughed, because some of the questions she stated were the next couple of ones that I was going to ask her.
Mrs. Wilson was born on November 28, 1911 in Mt. Vernon, New York. Her mother passed away when she was a young child. She was raised, along with two older sisters and two older brothers, by her father who was a lumber worker and stepmother.
Mrs. Wilson is an African American woman who went to an integrated school and “had a very good life” not feeling the harshness of racism and discrimination. “I never felt too much discrimination. We went to school with white children and I played with them too,” she said.
Growing up, she enjoyed playing ball with her siblings, and spending hours of time at the library. Mrs. Wilson was a curious child, “I always wondered about the world. I would go out on the porch and stand and look out and I always thought the sky and the earth met.”
When asked about healthy eating, she said, “There are a lot of things I didn’t eat. My stepmother didn’t prepare meals like we have today. My favorite foods were vegetables. I enjoyed eating lettuce and tomatoes, and we ate things when they were in season. We grew everything; tomatoes, cucumbers, and string beans. When it came down to southern dishes we didn’t eat those.”
I pivoted the conversation and asked, “Let’s talk about the evolution of style, beauty, and fashion. How did you wear your hair?” She replied, “When I was younger I remember my stepmother use to comb my hair and put Vaseline and a hot comb through it until it ruined my hair. Black women look much different these days. They looked better when I was growing up.” As an African American woman, I processed her comment and then grinned. I thought to myself how different the world must look like now with its rampant consumerism and the over-complexities of beauty.
As a teenager, Mrs. Wilson’s penmanship was remarkable. Her only regret was not attending college. “I wanted to attend Wilberforce University.” Living near the railroad tracks she wanted to become an engineer. Instead, she chose a career path in nursing, working at Brooklyn State Hospital.
When asked, “What was your favorite decade and why?” Mrs. Wilson reminisced and proclaimed it was during the 60’s. “If you’re born in one decade and live to see another, then God has spared you to see as much as you can. I would go to soapbox talks in Harlem on the weekends. You’d have different soapbox speakers every weekend. I saw Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Joe Lewis.”
Mrs. Wilson married George Wilson at the young age of 19. He was an entrepreneur with a motivated heart and together they started a small catering business. “I had a good married life. My husband taught me a lot. He taught me how to drive. One day he was taking me down the road and I wanted to get behind the wheel. I got mad and was going to walk back home. He went around the block, starting following me, then he got out of the car, and let me drive.”
In 1967, her husband passed away, and five years later Mrs. Wilson sold their family business. Every year, Mrs. Wilson visited her sister in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “I’ve only lived in one state all of my life until 1972. I decided to move to Michigan to be with my sister and her family.”
Mrs. Wilson joined Brown Chapel in 1973 under Pastor George Powell. From then on she has continued her missionary and volunteer work in Ypsilanti, serving in the Missionary Society, Willing Workers, as a member of the senior Usher Board, past president of Church Women United, Beyer Hospital Auxiliary and past matron of Ruth Chapter #2 of the Eastern Stars; and at Beyer Hospital for 22 years and Turner Geriatric Center Silver Club for 8 years.
When Mrs. Wilson turned 89 years old she moved into East Clark Towers. She still writes checks and enjoys the freedom of living on her own. Mrs. Wilson mentioned that the greatest invention of her time was the automobile, which she gave up driving when she turned 101 years old.
Her greatest accomplishment in life is: “Getting along with people and treating everyone right. Always be careful what you say. And never look down on anyone else. I’ve always gotten along with anyone no matter what color. Always remember to treat people the way that you want to be treated.”