Miss Evans, 122, a living marvel and a mystery

July 01, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

Mamie Evans keeps going and going and going.

Sunday, she turns 122.

Last year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer issued a citation honoring Miss Evans as "one of the oldest centenarians living in our state." And Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke issued a citizen citation to Miss Evans when she turned 121 last July.

Today, she will be feted by an a cappella group and the company of other centenarians at her home, the Camden Yards Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Pigtown.

Two days before her birthday party, Miss Evans sits in a wheelchair, propped by pillows. She wears a flowered dress and gold beads, and her snowy hair is pulled into a puffy ponytail. Though she is blind and hears poorly, she looks toward the sound of voices.

When thirsty, she is able to ask for water, but otherwise rarely speaks.

Knarled and bent like an old tree, Miss Evans looks as if she is guarding a trove of ancient memories: of her parents, who were likely slaves, and of her own remarkable existence.

"I truly wish she were able to speak," says Rosalind Hazelwood, director of therapeutic recreation at the nursing home. "She surely has a wealth of knowledge."

Baltimore gerontologist Odessa D. Dorkins has taken a particular interest in Miss Evans. But her attempts to discover more about her past ran aground early. Ms. Dorkins knows that Miss Evans lived in North Carolina and that her parents were Joe and Lizzie Evans.

Though she claimed to be a widow, Miss Evans maintained her father's name, Ms. Dorkins says. And no evidence has turned up regarding children or siblings.

In the two years Miss Evans has lived in the nursing home, Ms. Hazelwood has gleaned a sense of her life from gestures and body language. For example, Miss Evans habitually keeps a hand to her mouth. When dressed for a party with gloves and hat, she reflexively keeps her hands on her lap, as if she were in church or some other special place.

Miss Evans is plenty feisty. When she hears an unfamiliar voice making a request, "She won't do anything for them," says her nurse, Francis Beverly.

And she loves music. While listening to tunes from the '50s or Caribbean melodies in the day room, she moves a hand to the rhythm or claps, Ms. Beverly says.

She is also "real strong," Ms. Beverly says. "If she gets a grip on your hand, she won't let go." When Miss Evans' shinbone broke, it healed right up, Ms. Beverly says.

She takes vitamins, but little medication. She loves sweets and eats solid food despite having no teeth.

From time to time, something unexpected will open a tiny window to Miss Evans' past. When Ms. Beverly sticks her finger to get a blood sample, the sensation will take her back to an early day, and she'll protest, "Poppa, I didn't do anything."

Verifying Miss Evans' age has been no easy matter. Usually, family bibles, medical, school or insurance records are used to determine the age of those who are very old, according to Social Security spokesman Phil Gambino. Folks such as Miss Evans, an African-American who was probably born at home, often do not have a birth certificate. But according to Social Security records, Miss Evans was born on July 2, 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant was president.

Mr. Gambino said 40,000 American citizens out of the 42 million registered are listed as 100 years or older. The number of centenarians on Social Security rolls has doubled since 1986, he says.

Even in light of a burgeoning centenarian population, Miss Evans' six score and two is special. "For a person to have lived for that length of time, they have to have some kind of will or some kind of desire," says Ms. Dorkins, who has established an annual luncheon to recognize Maryland's centenarians.

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