Spanning 3 centuries

Celebration: Feeling no older than "when I was 60," Elizabeth Oswald celebrates her 102nd birthday at a senior center - where she only comes to socialize.

April 11, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Before the airplane, the television and the Internet, there was Elizabeth Miller Oswald.

When Oswald was born in 1899, the union numbered 45 states. President John F. Kennedy was born a month after her 18th birthday. And had Oswald wanted to vote for a president in 1917, she couldn't, because women didn't get the right to vote until 1920.

Affectionately known as Granny, Oswald was born in the 19th century, came of age in the 20th, and yesterday, on her 102nd birthday, celebrated a life lived in three centuries with family and friends at the Deerfield Senior Day Center in Annapolis.

If you thought the centenarian lived at the center, think again. Oswald, who resides in Riva with her daughter and son-in-law, is a vigorous woman and drops by the center twice a week to socialize and have fun.

Her strides are a little bit slower, her vision is almost gone, but she is cogent and vibrant as ever.

"She's spunky, witty and keeps everyone on their toes," said Inbal Neun, executive director of the center, which provides day and evening assisted-living services for the elderly. "She's as sharp as a tack. Her memory is wonderful, and she enjoys talking."

Understandably, Oswald is never without a story. If your life was a tapestry of experiences spanning the horse-and-buggy days, the Depression, two World Wars, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and, now, the Information Age, you would have ample fodder for more than a few dinner parties.

As if to test her ironclad memory, the staff showed Oswald relics from the past, including a worn washboard, a 20-pound metal iron and a wire rug beater.

"This was my best friend," Oswald, a mother of 12, said of the washboard. She also recalled how she used to heat the iron by placing it on a stove burner before pressing clothes. And the metal rug beater?

"Did you ever feel like using it on your husband?" Neun said jokingly.

"No, I never used it on him. He was a good man, but there were many times I felt like it!" Oswald said with a laugh.

Later, staff members dressed as flappers dancing to ragtime music performed the Charleston for Oswald. She rose out of her chair to join them, kicking up her heels in front of a portrait of her with the words, "Elizabeth Oswald, 102 years young!"

"I don't feel any older than I was when I was 60," Oswald said.

Just what is her secret? Describing herself as a "plain old ordinary country girl," she says it's simple: Stay positive.

"When you feel like crying sometimes, just laugh the biggest laugh," she said. "You can get down, but if you don't come out of it people, will walk all over you. You've got to come up and smile, darling."

Good clean living doesn't hurt either, she added. Asked if she ever attended a speakeasy during the Prohibition era, Oswald said, "Pepsi-Cola is as strong as I get."

Oswald was born April 10, 1899, in Richmond County, Ga. near the town of McBean. She was to become one of nine children - five girls and four boys - and is one of two still alive today. Her brother Leon, 88, lives in Augusta, Ga.

Her family owned a 550-acre plantation, most of which they rented to farmers. Oswald has fond memories of playing with her siblings and walking three miles each day to a one-room schoolhouse.

While her mother looked after the home, her father, a German immigrant, sailed the world as captain of the cargo ship Marie S. Cummins for the Camden, N. J.-based Cummins Ship Brokers. He transported goods until 1910 when his three-masted schooner was lost at sea in a hurricane off the coast of Nags Head, N.C.

Her parents stressed the importance of education, and after finishing school, she became a teacher. In 1918, she met her future husband, Arthur E. Oswald, when he was a guest in their home. Six months later, they married and moved to South Carolina to start a family.

Two of their children - ages 4 and 5 - were killed in an auto accident in the early 1920s involving their first car - a Ford Model T. She has never gotten over the loss.

"Some very serious things happen in life. Just try to accept it and understand it," she said. "When you feel like crying just say a little prayer and say, `I'm just not going to cry.' Because I tell you, I could have cried half my life away."

Her husband's job with Southern Bell kept them traveling as he built telephone lines on the East Coast. By 1935, the couple had seven children and settled in Washington, where Oswald gave birth to three more children, the last two twins. The Depression made life difficult, and to make ends meet Oswald sewed blue chambray shirts for 15 cents each.

Fueled by a sense of patriotism during World War II, Oswald worked for nearly five years at the Navy Department as a financial clerk, recalling simply, "I was needed."

The couple relocated again, to pastoral Carmody Hills, where they purchased a $1,000 house that Oswald still owns today.

After 56 years of marriage, her husband died in 1973 at the age of 75. From Canada to Texas and Maryland to California, Oswald has seven remaining children, 34 grandchildren, 60 great-grandchildren and 10 great-great-grandchildren. In all, she has more than 120 direct descendants.

And that, said 73-year-old daughter Lois Lengel, is Oswald's legacy. "The sense of morality, fairness and optimism that she has left with all of us, the sense of honor that seems to be missing in today's world."

Deerfield staff dedicated a young peach tree yesterday in honor of the native Georgian.

It probably won't bear fruit for another three years, but granddaughter-in-law Carol Oswald said: "Knowing Granny, she'll be here to see those peaches."

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