Love makes the world go round

Posted: September 15, 2013

ONCE YOU'RE 103 years old, your memories soften.

For Lenora Carey, that means that memories of hardship have receded, overtaken by gratitude that she has known an abundance of the only thing that matters in life.

Love.

I didn't think this would be the most compelling lesson I'd take from my visit with Carey, whose 103rd birthday will be celebrated Tuesday afternoon at the North City Congress, a senior center on North Broad Street.

I met Carey through her dear friend Eilene Frierson, director of North City, who thought I'd enjoy spending time with Carey, who's a living embodiment of the arc of black migration from the South.

Born in 1910 in the dirt-poor North Carolina hills, moved to Philadelphia at 16, worked in the city's booming textile factories, became a neighborhood matriarch, knew American life before and after the civil-rights movement.

So I turned on my tape recorder and got ready to enjoy a history lesson from someone who'd had a front seat to American history since William Howard Taft was in the White House.

But all Carey wanted to talk about was love.

So we talked about love. What, I'm gonna argue with a 103-year-old?

Carey told me how family strife caused her to leave school at 12 and live with people who were not kin, for whom she cooked and cleaned to earn her keep.

This taught her resilience, she says, and reminded her how much she loved her mother, who taught her how to keep an immaculate home.

She spoke lightly of her first husband, a childish man whom she left the day he took a belt to her. Later, she cared for him while he was dying, because love compelled her to help a scared and lonely soul in need.

"I didn't always like him, and I didn't want to be his wife," says Carey, who has lived for so long in her spacious apartment at the Clara Baldwin Manor in North Philly that she can no longer remember the year she moved in.

"But I loved him, even with his flaws. If God can love us, in all of our mess, we can love others." She's a tiny woman dressed in worn slippers and a yellow housecoat, with a beautiful smile and warm hands that hold mine as she marvels how loss can beget blessings.

"I wanted to have a big family - six kids! - with Carrigan," Carey says, referring to her cherished second husband, who is long gone (though she can't recall the year he passed). When they were unable to conceive, she sated her maternal longing by babysitting neighborhood children - dozens and dozens of them - and treating them like her own.

"I taught them manners, I took them to Sunday school, I brought them to nursing homes so they could show kindness to old people," she says, never imagining the day she'd be older by decades than those she and the children once visited.

She even formed a club for them, called North Philadelphia Sunshine Juniors, to render service to the sick and shut-in through "acts of genuine kindness." In turn, the children heaped upon Carey more love than she might've known from the biological family she'd once yearned for. She struggles to remember the names of all those she sang and fed and read to, but their photos - many still keep in touch - are framed on every shelf and tabletop in her living room.

"I told them, 'Be a doctor, be a preacher, be a lawyer. If you're going to be a street sweeper, that's OK, too - just be the best street sweeper you can be." Before age slowed her down - though she is surprisingly nimble for a woman born only a few years after man took his first flight - she was active in so many charitable groups she became the go-to woman when people needed a meal, a ride to the doctor or their house cleaned when they were ill.

So it feels strange she says, to rely on others the way others once relied on her.

Still, she treasures the rides she gets to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. The happy days she spends at North City Congress, where she and her fellow seniors listen to lectures, enjoy trips to the mall, occasionally try their luck at a casino.

But she nonetheless has found a way to help others that requires nothing more than her telephone.

"One day, I was calling a friend and I dialed a wrong number," she says. "I apologized and the woman said, 'Don't hang up!' and she started crying. I asker her if she needed me to listen and she said yes. She had a lot going on in her life and just needed someone to talk to. I must have been on the phone with her for a half-hour." She took the woman's number and called her back the next day and for weeks after. And it gave her an idea:

Each morning, she would dial a random phone number and ask whoever answered if they'd like to talk for a few minutes. Whatever they needed to say, she would be glad to listen.

And she's been making random, daily calls ever since (although, again, she forgets how long she's been at it).

"I've had some wonderful conversations," says Carey. "Sometimes, all people need is for someone to listen to them. To let them know they're loved. Since I love everyone, it's easy."

Before I leave Carey's apartment, I double-check my tape recorder, wanting to be sure I got every word she's shared.

Even though I need to remember only one.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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