Kentucky

Campbellsville woman celebrating another birthday — number 111

Lera Williams, who will be 111 years-old on Wednesday, was photographed in her home in Campbellsville, Ky., Monday, February 7, 2011. Lera was born Feb. 9, 1900 and is the oldest person in Kentucky. Charles Bertram | Staff
Lera Williams, who will be 111 years-old on Wednesday, was photographed in her home in Campbellsville, Ky., Monday, February 7, 2011. Lera was born Feb. 9, 1900 and is the oldest person in Kentucky. Charles Bertram | Staff

CAMPBELLSVILLE — Lera Williams was born the year the century turned, married at 18 and survived the Great Flu that very same year.

She had eight children, two who died before her, which is the single worst thing that could happen to you, she says. She can still remember her grandparents like it was yesterday. She remembers riding sidesaddle on a horse and paddling a skiff across the Cumberland River because someone put her in the boat and told her to do it.

She can remember her daddy reading the Bible every morning and every night. She never had the desire to learn to drive, but she could probably still hand-tie tobacco if she had to.

On Wednesday, Lera celebrates her 111th birthday, which means she was born in 1900, just after the last century had freshly dawned, when all that Lera was to be, believe and beget lay before her.

When asked about life, she says it's a wonder.

When asked about time, she says it sure "flies fast."

According to the Gerontology Research Group, an international body that deals in longevity research, she is Kentucky's oldest living resident and is probably the 64th oldest on the planet. She is someone they call a "supercentenarian," a person who has survived beyond her 110th birthday.

The frail, smiling woman in the pink flannel night clothes doesn't seem too impressed herself, calling it a "normal life."

She married C.M. Williams in 1918, but he wasn't the first man she had an eye on. She says there were others who "made me giggle." C.M. and Lera lived in his parents' house, because that was what everybody did back then.

She had all those children — all girls but one boy — with the help of a midwife; no troubles there.

She was, she says, a farm wife. She believes in God with her whole heart. Her children knew they were loved, just as she knew she was loved by her parents.

Her husband died in 1961. They had been married for 43 years.

These days, Lera lives at home, a block away from Campbellsville University. Her daughters take turns caring for her, each living a month at the house.

"She's been a wonderful mama," says Anna, 78, who makes sure Lera eats well and has her crochet near at hand.

Lera says she has always lived as she was taught when she was small: "Trust and obey the Lord, and he would provide."

She says it helps that she is not afraid of much either. Except snakes.

When terrible things happened — and they did — you had to accept them. Anna reminds her of the time when Lera was a young mother, and a warm day in January brought a tornado ripping through their home, causing it to collapse. Baby Nellie Catherine was in a bed that was crushed; another small child was in a bed that was not.

"Nellie was the strongest child I had," says her mother, stilled by the memory.

Asked how she survived that, her eyes, which she says don't see so well, soften. "You did what you had to do to carry on."

A second daughter, Audrey, died in 1942. Her eldest daughter, Eloise, is still with her at 91. Her youngest, Betty, is 68.

Asked if she still offers motherly advice to Eloise, Lera says, "I tell her what I think."

Her white hair frames her face of nearly flawless skin. She says she can't hear so well anymore.

According to Anna, her mother hasn't left the house in 14 years, hasn't been to church in that long either, and that is something she really misses.

It was 14 years ago that Lera broke her hip, and because the only medicine she needs now is a little something for her heart and a little something for blood pressure and her vitamins, it was the last time she saw a doctor.

"I never was one to go to the doctor," says the little woman in the big chair, surrounded by pictures of her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren and her great-great-grandchildren.

In a conversation lull or, says Anna, very early in the morning when she is not certain it is time to wake up yet, her mother will sing old Methodist hymns.

As if to demonstrate, all of a sudden, the small woman begins: "Oh, how I love Jesus," singing in a soft lilt, and she goes on for a verse or two.

She will stop, mention that she likes cats better than dogs. She will break out then in My Old Kentucky Home.

There is not a single day she would want to live over again, but that does not mean they have not all been worth reliving.

She says she dreams a lot now, but sometimes the dreams don't make sense. "I wander and I can't find my way home," she says. "I walk through streams."

From her childhood?

She is not sure, but maybe.

She is not anxious for death, but she does not fear it.

"I look forward to seeing all these people who have gone over there into the spirit world before me," she says, quietly but sure.

"I'm not afraid of anything much," she says for a second time.

She is most assuredly looking forward to the company that will come on Wednesday to share punch and cake.

"Please come back tomorrow," she says, by way of goodbye.

Anna turns out the light, and Lera hums.

If you want to know a secret to long life, she says, this is all she can offer: Love. Be loved. Trust in God. And sing.

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