My mom lived to be 101 and five months. She said once you reached 99, you started counting your age like a newborn – in months: 99 and six months, 99 and nine months. She used to advise that if you wanted to live to be a hundred, you should live to be 99 and then be very, very careful.
Mary B. Strong, whose name doubled as her motto, was a tough, no-nonsense woman. A Daughter of the American Revolution, survivor of the Great Depression; an honest as the day is long woman of the Texas soil. She had what John Wayne called True Grit. I think anyone who lives so long, one in about 40,000, must have True Grit.
So what was the secret to her longevity?
She was always willing to try new things – never one to say, “I’m too old for that.” She bought her first computer when she was 88, was on the Internet writing emails at 92 and had 115 Facebook friends when she died. She refused to let technology leave her behind. Even when her hands were gnarled by arthritis and she could no longer type, she would dictate her emails to those who would type for her. Just a few days before she passed, she was admiring my iPhone, saying, “Oh, I’m gonna buy one of those for myself.”
She didn’t care about the phone, really. She saw the potential for a thousand pictures of grandkids conveniently carried in her purse.
A second secret was that she never stopped moving. She mowed her own lawn ’til she was 85 and never stopped gardening. When she was 99, I asked her what she would do if she could be 18 for a day, and she said, “Oh, I would RUN. I would get out on that Galveston beach and just run until I ran out of island.”
She continued to do her own dishes and laundry right up to her last days. She went to church three times a week, never allowing most illness to keep her away. She’d say, “ I won’t feel any worse at church, and I might feel better.”
She was courageous. For her 101st birthday, she was asking me to take her for a ride on my motorcycle. I told her I‘d have to strap her down with bungee cords and she said that would be fine. Always ready for the next adventure.
Third was her diet. She ate pretty much what she pleased. Eggs and bacon, BBQ, cheeseburgers, Mexican food, a Coca-Cola every mid-morning – and a bowl of ice cream before bed. Her only compromise was in portions – always small. And no alcohol at all.
She had great pride. Her measure of people was in whether or not they took pride in what they did and how they lived. Sometimes her standards were unfair, like the time she visited Arizona and complained about the shabby lawns out there. I reminded her that it was a desert and she said, “But if they had pride, they’d have nice yards.”
That was her central value, I suppose: Pride. She always said to me, “I don’t care much what you do in life, just make sure you live a life you can be proud of.” And if she didn’t personally like something, like the new truck I’d bought, she’d say, “Well, it’s not my kinda truck, but I’m proud of it for ya.”
And that pride she looked for her in others was evident in her. For her 101st birthday, I took her to the hair salon, a place she called the beauty parlor. On the way home I told her how lovely she looked. She leaned over my way as if she was sharing a secret. She said, “You know, a lot of people think I look only about 90.”
Give your Mom a big bear hug for Mother’s Day. And say the four words she cherishes most: “I love you, Mom.”
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.