At 107, stubborn touch helps

December 12, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Everybody in the family remembers when John and Lillian Schaffner returned to their home on Miller Road in Butler after an evening with friends. Waiting for them was John's mother. It was 11 o'clock at night.

"What are you doing out so late?" the mother demanded.

This being maybe a year ago, John Schaffner mistakenly assumed he could stay out as late as he wanted. He was 71 years old at the time.

But his mother was 105, and mothers know better.

Next week, going by the calendar and checking the various centuries of her existence, Ida Bernice "Grandma" Schaffner will be 107, and she's still paying attention to the things around her, including the lives of her son and daughter-in-law, with whom she lives, her three grandchildren and her six great-grandchildren.

When she met a man this week who asked, "How are you?" -- she replied, "I'm doing pretty good. Why?"

And then she laughed at her own little joke. In a voice that had the tinkle of a young girl, she said, "I lost my eyesight so bad, I can't thread a needle any more." Also, her hearing's not what it used to be. But, "Any pains?" she giggled. "No, the idea of it. What would I want that for? Why would I get sick? I've got too much to do."

She's a pistol. The way some people will see something astonishing and say, "Why, if I live to be a hundred ...," Bernice Schaffner will say. "Why, if I live to be 200 ...." She still puts Ponds cold cream on her face every night and combs out her hair.

And, not long ago, when some of the bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration went rummaging through their computers to see if money was mistakenly being paid to those no longer alive, they looked at Bernice's date of birth and said, "She can't still be here."

So one of them called the house, and John Schaffner answered the phone.

"We were looking at our records and saw we're still sending payments to your mother," the Social Security man said. "She's not still alive, is she?"

"Sure, she is," the son said. "You want to talk to her?"

The Social Security man still wasn't sure, so he drove to the house to make certain. Bernice was there, all right, puttering around the place, listening to the radio to keep up with the events of the day, more than a century after she was born to a waterman and his wife in a house by a creek in the village of Shady Side, south of Annapolis near the West River.

She was the eldest of the seven Rogers children, one of two girls still surviving. The other, Alice Griner, is considered the baby of the family. She's 91. Their school was on the other side of Parrish Creek, which was in front of the Rogers house. The kids never took a bus to school, because none existed. In spring and fall, they'd paddle a rowboat across to get to class. In winter, they'd ice skate across the creek to school.

It was a very long time ago. Bernice was born when Geronimo had newly agreed to quit the warpath. Two weeks before Bernice's ninth birthday, the war ended -- the Spanish-American War. When she was 18, Henry Ford introduced his Model T. She still remembers taking the train to Washington for the presidential inauguration -- William Howard Taft's.

"I don't know what my mother's secret is," said John Schaffner, a retired computer systems analyst. "I wish I knew. We could bottle it and sell it and make a fortune."

As a young woman, she helped raise her brothers and sisters, and became a seamstress. She lived with an aunt in East Baltimore and was approached by an insurance man named Peter Schaffner. He wanted to take her out. Bernice said she wasn't interested. The aunt said, "Give him a break."

"That was the best time of my life," Bernice said this week. "Being in love. Yes, sirree."

She and Peter were married in 1923, and the marriage lasted until Peter's death a half-century later.

"She's a wonder," grandson Bob Schaffner says. "Until pretty recently, she was so up-to-date on what was going on in the world, you didn't want to get into a political debate with her. She's wearing out some. She's tired. But she still gets dressed every day, and she only needs a nurse to come visit once a week."

A couple of years ago, Bernice had congestive heart failure. Doctors weren't sure she'd survive. When she did, they said she'd have to begin living at a nursing home.

After two weeks in the place, Bernice balked. She didn't like it there. She felt too confined.

"Yeah," her grandson Bob was remembering, "she said she was leaving. She threatened, if they didn't let her go, she was going to hitchhike up Charles Street and get home herself."

That's the kind of stubbornness to help a woman reach 107.

"A hundred and four," Bernice said.

"No," her son said, "it's 107."

Bernice smiled gently. "Why tell your age, for goodness sake?" she said.

Modesty, it's beautiful.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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