The Medicare card arrived the other day, just confirming what the body has been saying for a right good while now.
Ah, 65. A milestone unlike any other, and kind of oddly so, for once past 21 – Lord, 1970 really was a long time ago – one’s anniversaries are usually just undistinguished work days, quickly unrememberable.
Approaching the big Six-Five, though, one can’t help but take notice, if for no other reason than how it gets rubbed in from the flood of junk mail wanting to sell you insurance supplements. And the meaning of it all can’t help but sink in: even if your hair isn’t gray and your knees aren’t shot, you are officially a senior citizen.
Sigh, you can feel your time ticking away. Or, you can think about Bull Citizen Verona Vickers. She has a birthday coming in September. Her 109th.
“September the 29th, 1905,” she said one recent morning, with no more hesitation than when she recited the 23rd Psalm – King James Version – just to show she still could do it.
Verona Vickers shows her years. She doesn’t see well, she’s deaf in one ear and since a bout of pneumonia and trouble with her feet she’s been confined to a rehab home. But on her good days, she’s still sharp and she can tell you things about times you’re not old enough to know about.
“There were streetcars that ran out to Lakewood Park. They had hotels, nice stores, downtown was a showplace. And at Christmas they’d decorate Main Street so beautifully that people from out of town would come to Durham just to see.
“It was all new to me, of course.”
That was 1928. “I came to bring a relative and never went back except to visit.”
“Back” was Sampson County, down east of Fayetteville. “There was nothing,” she said. “We were living on an old farmand there was nothing for me to do. So when I came to Durham to bring my aunt to see her son, I stayed and I got a job.
“The funniest thing – my first job was wrapping lace around a card.”
That was at Rayless, a Main Street department store where Vickers worked for two or three years until Sara Nachman Evans walked across Main Street and recruited her for the Evans family’s United Dollar Store.
“Oh, they were wonderful people,” she said. “And they believed in you working. If you didn’t have anything to do, you don’t just stand there. ... You keep busy.”
Mr. Evans was “Mutt.” He was elected mayor in 1951 and held the job 12 years. “I thought he deserved it,” Vickers said. “He was smart. He was ambitious.”
A living link
Verona Vickers is a living link to the era of family-owned department stores and tobacco auctions crowding the town in the fall, when you could ride out to Lakewood Park to see a take a dive into a tub of water. But you wouldn’t say she lives in the past.
“I want to know how everybody is,” she said. “Is anybody in the hospital? Is anybody sick? ... Good or bad, I want to know it. Tell me everything, I’ve got an inquisitive mind. My mind runs 100 miles an hour.”
Still at 108, she has a lot of past if she chooses to stop in for a visit. Like 1939, when she was in New York on a buying trip with the Evanses and went out to see the World’s Fair.
“I remember seeing – there was a movie about people dancing and having a big time, on television. And some lady told me, she told me, ‘Don’t believe that.’ That was back in ’39. She said, ‘Don’t believe that, that’s propaganda. Russia is nothing like that.’
“That was on television at the World’s Fair. We were at the World’s Fair and I was watching television.”
After a summer of courting, Vickers married a Durham native, Victor Vickers, in 1941 and they were riding a bus back from visiting her relatives when word came about Pearl Harbor. A broken eardrum kept Victor out of the army, but he was doing defense work at Wright Machinery and he served as air-raid warden.
“When the siren would go off, he would put on his helmet and get his gun and go out,” she said. “So I was by myself and of course everything was in blackout, I was afraid to stay in the house by myself with everything dark. So the dog and I would go out ... and sit on the porch until the lights came on.” That meant the drill was over.
When their daughter, Vicki, was born Vickers stopped working and became a full-time homemaker. She didn’t get out too much, mostly just to church, because she never learned to drive. Not that she didn’t try. Once. It was in 1965. Her daughter now grown, Vickers had taken a job again and got home one day through a snowstorm to find Victor unconscious on the floor from a heart attack. With a neighbor’s help she got him to the hospital, and though his heart stopped at one point he lived on until 1997.
The doctors kept Victor in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Vicki thought it was a good time to teach her mother to drive a car. They rode out and found a country road.
“Well, I was driving along and I thought, ‘I’m doing OK,’ Vickers said. Then her daughter said, “You’re stopping too far from the intersection.”
“Well I thought I’d do it right next time. Well, I did it right in a hole. The car was upside down. She and I finally got out, there wasn’t anybody and no traffic, not anyone. So we just waited. There was nobody in sight.”
Eventually someone did come by and call the authorities in Creedmoor.
“The cops came out of course,” Vickers said, “and a wrecker came and got the car.” The cops took her and Vicki up to town, to “what was a police station and a post office. ... And they fingerprinted me! ... The cop that took us home said, ‘Now don’t let that stop you learning to drive.’
“Well, it did stop me. I never tried it any more.” They never told Victor what had happened.
“Never did,” she said.
Before she got around to telling about Hawaii and crossing the Bermuda Triangle (“I got a certificate,” she said), she was too tired to go on. Another time, maybe. Vickers didn’t think she’d be going anywhere.
“As far as I know, this is for the rest of my life,” she said, sitting in a wheelchair in her room at the rehab home. “I’m 108 you know, so I don’t have much time. Only God knows.”
And there you’d been, thinking you were something just because you were pushing 65. Getting yourself put in context when you’re feeling self-conscious about something trivial is a kind of therapeutic thing to do. Like letting an older person talk some sense into you.