Elizabeth Stewart saw the dawn of the 20th century. She has long outlasted it and is going strong.

She's ready to take on her 106th year

March 22, 2006|By RONA MARECH | RONA MARECH,SUN REPORTER

Perhaps it was the goose grease, a homemade remedy for colds. Or maybe the teaspoons of castor oil and camphorated oil. Or the squirrel, muskrat and pig's head Elizabeth Stewart liked to fix and enjoy with a nice cold beer.

Stewart certainly did something right: She outlived two husbands, two sons and, not least of all, the entire 20th century. The year she was born, Britain's Queen Victoria died, the first transatlantic radio message was transmitted and a bread toaster cost a grand total of 20 cents.

Today, Stewart turns 105.

There are no secrets to a long life, she said, sitting upright in a wheelchair, her eyes clear, gnarled hands resting in her lap. "I let God take care of all that."

She used to tell Berta Smith, a friend who is almost 50 years her junior, "It may be snowing in the mountain, but there's a lot of fire in the furnace."

The message was: "Don't give up on life," said Smith, who met Stewart in 1980 when she began helping her with grocery shopping and other errands.

"People think when you're old, you forget and don't care," Smith said, as she prepared a feast of crab balls, string beans, macaroni and cheese, breaded turkey wings and fried chicken for her friend's surprise birthday celebration. "But she still had a fire burning in there. ... She sure enjoyed herself."

Stewart, who lived independently until she moved into FutureCare Lochearn last year, uses a wheelchair and doesn't hear very well. The details of her life sometimes get jumbled, and many memories have gone the way of the streetcar that used to rumble past her house.

But she appears decades younger than what one might think a 105-year-old is supposed to look like. Her face is largely unlined; she dresses with great care. (Most people haven't had much contact with 105-year-olds - about 4,900 Americans 105 and older were counted in the 2000 census.)

On a recent morning, Stewart's straight, white-gray hair was neatly coiffed with a little wave at the temple. She wore a blue skirt, blue blazer and a cream-colored silk blouse, and her voice didn't quaver as she unearthed some tales from long ago.

Stewart has lived her entire life in Baltimore, where she cleaned homes for a living. "What was called domestic work," she said. She worked until she was 80, Smith said, continuing to iron clothes at home when she grew too old to clean.

She married twice, first to Sydney Estep, a longshoreman. After he died, she married Willie Stewart, who worked at Sparrows Point. Her two sons, Harry and Vernon Estep, died years ago.

Stewart loved dancing to jazz as a young woman and shopping at downtown stores that have long since disappeared. She used to dress "out of this world," she said, in handmade suits from Chicago, lizard-skin shoes and black feather hats.

An only child, Stewart was always close to her mother - closer than anyone else, she said. Her mother taught her how to cook, to keep house, to work hard and to always be polite.

"Manners," Stewart said, "take you a long way. Don't you know that?"

At a time when blacks were barred from many lunchrooms and hotels, she learned from her mother to always keep her head up, she said, tipping her head slightly.

"When my mom told me to do something, I had to do it," she said. "I didn't talk back, either."

"Raising children and teaching them is different than when I was coming up," she said. "A whole lot different." She has one grandson, but she has lost contact with him.

Sometimes she feels lonely, missing her mother and her boys, but not like she used to.

God has pulled her out of a hole before, she said, growing teary; she trusts that he'll be there when she calls on him.

"I'm happy now where I'm at," she said. "I'm happy now."

Happy and unafraid of death, she says firmly, head lifted.

"When he gets ready, he'll take you," she said, "whether you're scared or not."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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