A woman reflects on her 100 years of life

March 12, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

FROM SOMEWHERE out of a long, dank corridor of memory, Marie Steibe fetches a song and warbles it aloud. It's a song about America sending her sons off to war. The song has come back to her over the last six months, in little snatches, as she lies in bed at night.

"Don't take my darling boy away from me/Don't take him off to war./You took his father and his brothers three/ And now you've come back for more."

She finishes singing, and her eyes twinkle. Memory holds. "I'm gonna tell you a nice joke," she says. It's about a dying man who tells his wife, "When you bury me, put all my money in my coffin."

At his funeral, a friend asks the woman, "And you did this? You put all his money in the coffin?"

"Certainly," says the widow. "I wrote him a check."

"That's the best joke I heard in a long time," Marie says, chuckling merrily. Then she offers another one, and then an encore song. She is irrepressible.

The first song goes back to World War I. Marie was working for the telephone company back then. The second song dates back to World War II, when Marie and her husband had already moved into this rowhouse on East Baltimore's Clinton Street.

She has her feelings about the current fighting, too. She has seen wars come and go. Today, she is 100 years old.

"What's the big deal?" she says now. "It's not so different from 99."

Sitting across from her, Marie's granddaughter, Carol Steibe, shrugs her shoulders. The gesture says: Who could argue with such logic?

Carol has lived here for three years, giving up her job as a government policy analyst to be her grandmother's caretaker.

Eighteen months ago, Marie fell down stairs and broke her hip. She came out of surgery fine. Last August, she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and was taken to a hospice. They gave her a week to live, and told Carol to go home alone.

"Not without my grandmother," she said.

That was eight months ago. Now the two of them share a laugh on Clinton Street. As her grandmother reaches for a glass of water, Carol calls her "the poster child for bad eating habits."

She has cake for breakfast each morning and ice cream before bed each night. Every Friday, she insists on Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. In fact, Carol sent a letter to the KFC folks, telling them that her centenarian grandmother loves their product. She figured, what the heck, maybe they'd send her a few free dinner coupons.

Instead, in the dining room now, she shows mail just received from the KFC folks. All it contains is an autographed photo of Colonel Sanders.

Who, it should be noted, is no longer among the living -- though Marie Steibe certainly is.

She says she never had a doctor, "except for childbirth," until she was 96, when she broke her pelvic bone. She lay on the couch for a few days, thinking it would heal.

She takes no regular medications. She's outlived both her husband and her son.

"I'm doing fine, so far," she says. "So far, so good."

"Is there a secret to living so long?" she is asked.

"You tell me," she says.

She was born weeks after the great Baltimore fire of 1904. The family lived on Patterson Park Avenue.

Marie would walk to the Broadway Market with her grandmother, where vendors who had immigrated here from all over Europe would shout across the aisles in a variety of languages.

She remembers boats unloading great crates of bananas and oranges at the foot of Broadway. Nobody drove cars back then. Some got around town with horses and wagons.

At 14, she left public school for a job at Gutman's Department Store, where she wrapped parcels for customers and was paid $1 a day.

Sometimes, she says, her boss would give her a nickel to take a streetcar and "deliver a spool of cotton to a customer. Can you imagine? Going all the way to some person's house to deliver such a thing."

Then, fibbing slightly about her age, she got a job with the phone company. World War I was drawing to a close.

She does not live in the past. She remembers going to the old Hippodrome Theater -- but she also delights in the new Hippodrome, symbolizing rebirth on downtown's west side.

She knows about the new library set for Highlandtown -- but aware, and saddened, that the old Grand Theater was torn down to make way for it.

"I went there to see Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer," she says. "It was so surprising to hear them talking in a movie. We didn't know the movies could ever talk. Plus, we used to dance upstairs there. They had bands playing. And, on amateur nights, my niece and I would get up and sing. It was a lovely theater. But, you know, people want something new. We need a good library for East Baltimore."

In World War II, she remembers, "you could get jobs anywhere. I worked at the Tindeco plant, making tops for 50-gallon containers of lard. My mother would say, `Be careful, that machine will take your arm off.' I said, `What are you gonna do, we have to work.'

"We were coming out of that Depression. And the men were all gone off to war. They were taking them all away."

Now men -- and women -- have gone off to fight another war.

"I don't know about this George Bush," Marie Steibe says. "Now, Woodrow Wilson, I thought he was a good president. He was a right good man. He always knew what he was talking about. This Bush, I don't know. He had no experience to get a job like this. And now he's sent all these young people off to Iraq. One more war ... "

She's seen them all. She's sung their songs, and grieved their dead. She's irrepressible. She's 100.

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