A special anniversary, but the kind most people wouldn’t celebrate, or even think about, unless the person was there to celebrate with.
This past week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of my paternal grandmother, Alvina Thomas.
In the past I have written a few stories for local residents who reached the century milestone, and the stories are always fascinating, discovering what was happening in the world at that time, to think of how the world has changed since.
But there’s an extra twinge of pride when it’s blood. This is my first grandparent to reach the age.
I’ll start with historical data: On Alvina’s birthday, a famous Presidential electoral vote took place, with Woodrow Wilson earning 40 of the then 48 states, a victory of former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Alvina’s birth date included the founding of Delta Sigma Theta, the second African-American sorority in the United States. It now hosts over 900 chapters in eight countries.
Within a week of Alvina’s birth came the birth of celebrities such as Shirley Ross, famous for singing, “Thanks for the Memory,” on screen with Bob Hope in 1938. It was the first time Hope sang his signature song publicly.
Other celebrities born within a week of Alvina included President Richard Nixon, actors Lloyd Bridges and Danny Kaye, 1950s television star Loretta Young, and billiards hustler Rudolf Wanderone, also known as Minnesota Fats.
Alvina was the child of Andrew Becker and Matilda Cecilia Vogt, both children of German immigrants. She was raised in a strict Catholic household, the eighth of nine children, seven reaching adulthood.
Raised in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood, Alvina lived there most of her 87 years. A panoramic photograph from the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church 1923 First Communion celebration remains intact at my parents’ home. She’s one of the couple hundred faces in it.
Alvina survived World War I, the Great Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and then World War II as wife of a soldier and raising three sons. She always was a worrywart, and I always assumed these were reasons why.
In later years her passion was all about Bingo. She would play sometimes six nights a week. On the seventh night she would call our house and tell whoever answered the phone how blue she felt because she wasn’t at the bingo.
Widowed in 1966, Alvina lived in Germantown, keeping her handicapped son for the next third of a century, attending church and bingo and visiting with her family. She was always kind to her six grandchildren.
As Granny, she always kissed us and told us how handsome or pretty we were. She always greeted us at the door and always stood and waved from the porch when we left until we were out of view.
She kept hundreds of cool little knick-knacks on her shelves, including a John F. Kennedy salt and pepper shaker set. JFK sat in a rocking chair; the chair was one shaker, and JFK was the other.
In her mid-80s Granny was still a bingo regular, walking to some events in the snow if the church bus didn’t arrive on time. If you were visiting Granny at a bingo, she’d leave you mid-conversation when the last game ended to get her favorite seat behind the bus driver.
We all took turns taking her to doctor visits (she never drove) and dodging her demands to take gas money. At age 81, she chased me across her front yard waving a $5 bill.
One of Granny’s most common phrases was, “If I can only get to feeling better.” She was in better shape than the rest of us until the very end.
Granny is one of the few people I ever knew that enjoyed fruitcake. She always had a pot of coffee on her stove in an old whistle kettle. I always enjoyed the retro 50s kitchen furniture she had.
Whenever we took Granny somewhere, when it was time to go home she always had her house key in hand. She did it once when we drove her to Paducah. Four hours from home and the key was out.
Christmas was her favorite holiday; Silent Night was her favorite song. She loved Elvis Presley, especially when he sang ballads.
She always looked and talked like the Granny character in the Looney Tunes cartoons. When I was little I always thought that was why we called her Granny, but it wasn’t.
Her lucky number was 13, and one of the last things she ever did was bet a 13 horse in a Breeders Cup race and hit for $80.
Whenever I would speak with Granny, we’d have the same conversation about 14 times in a row, but I always patiently answered the same questions. “Sometime you get forgetful,” she’d say.
Granny constantly worried, about whatever she could think of to worry about. Some of us to this day refer to my father as “Granny Junior” when he worries too much.
One of my favorite moments was in Granny’s last year: Dad and I took her to the doctor. As we were leaving her place, she turned quick as a whip to go back and get her trusty sweater.
“Mom, it’s 96 degrees outside.” my father bellowed.
“Well, it might turn cold yet,” Granny replied to my father’s shaking head.
The two of them continued the Abbott and Costello routine into the car, where Dad began quizzing Granny on the names of various great-grandchildren and spouses, names that Granny just couldn’t quite recall.
Then in the the rear view mirror, I saw my father wink.
“Mom, what time’s bingo tonight?” he asked.
“Starts at 8 p.m., preliminaries at 7:45, bus picks me up at 7:10,” was the rapid reply.
Granny was something else.