CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mary Hill has to shout so her grandmother can hear her when, on her caller’s behalf, she poses the question — a question that (we’re sorry, but) just screams to be asked of someone who’s been alive as long as Hester Ford.
“Why you think you still here, baby girl?” Hill asks, putting her own spin on the “What’s-your-secret-to-longevity?” query.
Ford replies quickly and confidently: “I don’t know.”
Then, after her granddaughter tries to coax a little more than that out of her, she gives a little more.
“I just live right, all I know,” Ford says.
Maybe it’s something in the half of a banana that she eats as part of her breakfast every morning. Or one could consider the fact that she went 108 years before ever needing to be hospitalized for any reason, and posit that some luck has been on her side, too.
Whatever the case may be, Ford is indeed continuing to live right, and possibly even the rightest.
On Saturday, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Charlotte great-great grandmother will celebrate Birthday No. ... well, truth be told, she’s so old that there’s a minor dispute about her actual age.
According to her family, U.S. Census Bureau documents indicate she was born in 1905, but then another set of Census Bureau documents say she was born in 1904. Either way — whether Ford is turning 115 or 116 — as of July 30 she was the oldest person on record living in the United States, based on data compiled by the Gerontology Research Group.
If she’s 115, she’s the sixth-oldest person still living on the planet. That’s the age the Gerontology Research Group certified her to be. If she is actually 116, though, that would make her the third-oldest.
She became the oldest living American last November, when North Carolina native Alelia Murphy died in New York at 114 years and 140 days old.
The oldest living human is Kane Tanaka of Japan. He will turn 118 on Jan. 2.
‘WE JUST THANK GOD’
Ford was born on a farm in Lancaster County, S.C., where she grew up plowing and picking cotton. She was married at 14 to John Ford, and gave birth to the first of the couple’s 12 children at age 15. Hester took care of the house, farm and the children while John worked at a local steel mill.
The couple eventually sold the farm and moved to Charlotte, building a house near the intersection of Interstates 77 and 85 around 1960.
John Ford died at age 57 in 1963, which means Hester has lived more than twice as long as her late husband. In addition to their children, the two of them went on to welcome 68 grandchildren, 125 great-grandchildren, and at least 120 great-great-grandchildren into the family.
And Hester Ford continued to live in that same house in the Dalebrook neighborhood on her own (that’s right, without live-in assistance) until she was 108.
After she fell in the bathtub and bruised her ribs, family members insisted someone move in with her. So for the past several years, three daughters have lived with her. Currently, her 87-year-old daughter Daisy and another daughter, Odessa, share the house with Hester.
Ford can still feed herself and can still walk very short distances with the aid of a walker.
And she still has her wits about her — so much so that when prompted by her granddaughter, Hester Ford was able to recite the 23rd Psalm word for word, without a single slip-up. Up until the pandemic started, she also was going to her longtime church, Macedonia Baptist, on the first Sunday of every month for communion. (Now her granddaughter Mary Hill, an ordained minister, gives the communion to Hester at home.)
“We just thank God for just keeping her here for us, because it gives us hope,” Hill says. “We would never want her to be here if she was sick. ... We want her to have a great quality of life in her elder years. We don’t want her to be sick or anything, and trying to hold on.”
“We’re just a blessed family.”
A DRIVE-BY BIRTHDAY BASH
Ford’s birthday has been known to draw a crowd.
This year, obviously, a big crowd is not a good idea. So the family is embracing a COVID-19-era trend by hosting a parade of friends, family members and other assorted supporters who will drive by her house on Saturday afternoon and wish her well by honking and waving from the street.
Gifts will be left at the bottom of the driveway, to be collected and safely introduced to the house. (Asked what she wanted for her birthday gift-wise, Ford replied: “Anything that anybody’ll give me.”)
Her family also will treat her to a marble birthday cake that will be decorated with “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” although they only plan to put 16 candles on top of it, not 116.
And although they realize this could be her last birthday cake, they also know that they’ve had that thought before. So while her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren aren’t taking anything for granted, they’re also not counting her out.
Who knows? If she continues “living right,” as she calls it, by this time next year (or even sooner) she could be the oldest person in the whole world.
At which point, more calls will come from folks wanting to know: What’s your secret?
Of course, the truth is Ford may not know exactly what it is.
But we tend to favor this theory from her granddaughter.
“(Exodus 20:12) says, ‘Honor your mother and father and your days will be long on the land,’” Hill says.
Then she lets out a little laugh.