Thursday, October 18, 2001

Gum, garlic?

Searching for secret of long life

        I am intrigued by reports of Mary Thompson, late of DeWitt, Ark., who was laid to rest with five yellow packs of Juicy Fruit gum. “Momma Mary,” as she was known at the nursing home, died this month at the age of 119. She had a taste for Juicy Fruit and Crown Royal whiskey.

        When somebody lives to a ripe old age, I want to know the secret, don't you? “Home, work, church,” was the austere recommendation of a woman in the Dominican Republic who claims to be 126. Elizabeth Israel says she drinks a lot of tea and didn't retire until she was 100.

        This has limited appeal for me.

        But gum and a dollop of good hooch sounds like a hardship I might personally be able to endure. Not that I don't love the idea of hiding soy in my meatloaf. Not that I don't realize the virtue of a good apple instead of a good chunk of Godiva chocolate. Not that I don't plan to literally aerobicize my buns off.


        Meanwhile, I keep looking for an easier way.

        Ms. Thompson was a good woman, a nice person, according to Vickie Brown, director of Crestpark Nursing Home. “But she felt she'd lived long enough to have her way now and then.” And if her way included a clear view of Vanna White and Bob Barker, well, she had a fly swatter, Ms. Brown remembers. “And when somebody got between Momma and the TV set, she wasn't afraid to use it.”

        Good, but not a saint. Kind, but not a pushover.

        By now, Ms. Thompson is beginning to remind me of someone closer to home.

Homemade potions
        At 104, Margueriet no longer walks the halls of Lincoln Crawford Nursing Home in Walnut Hills, but she has no trouble persuading somebody to push her wheelchair. I am assured that she still leads the volunteers and employees on a merry chase. She has sass. And something indefinable that draws people to her side. On a recent visit, Miz — never ms. or missus — Ballew is impeccably dressed.

        Christine Simmons, a staffer, takes one of Miz Ballew's hands in both of hers. “Your skin is so soft,” she says. “What's your secret?” And the old woman struggles mightily to remember her health and beauty tips. Dandelion tea. Peppermint lotion. In days past, the corridors of Lincoln Crawford were redolent with Miz Ballew's homemade potions.

        She recommends hard work and garlic, in roughly that order. She scrubbed floors, washed and ironed, pleated fancy curtains and made elaborate linens to support her sons, one of whom she outlived. There is great respect for Miz Ballew in this, her last home, and no one is surprised when a young mother, visiting someone else, comes by to show off her gorgeous 3-month-old baby to the old woman.

        A new book, The Okinawa Program, explores the miraculous longevity of residents of the little island north of Taiwan. Life expectancy there is 81.2 years, compared with 76 in the U.S. Besides diet, besides all things physical, the authors conclude that the Okinawa secret is people who “simply look out for one another.”

        And I am thinking that maybe the real miracle is someone who would place an exceedingly beautiful child in your arms. Someone who would make sure you had a fly swatter when you needed it. And someone who would remember how much you like Juicy Fruit gum.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.


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