Some people can inspire us just by being who they are.
Clara Joyner was pulling weeds outside in 90-degree heat when Patty and I called on her. She quickly gave it up, came inside, and entertained us.
We’ve known Clara for years, and we’ve grown used to her spryness and her refusal to grow old. She is a small woman, less than five feet tall, and a little stooped, but she carries herself with pride and walks with the vigor of people half her age. She always wears a dress, and her clothes are fresh and clean. Her short, white hair is thin from chemotherapy, but it is clean and combed. Her brown eyes sparkle, and they reflect a lifetime of accomplishment and satisfaction. She smiles broadly and with confidence. We had to talk a little louder than normal so she could pick up what we said, but she doesn’t wear hearing aids. She doesn’t use a cane or walker, either, and she doesn’t take any medicine. Clara is recovering from breast cancer, and she was going to the doctor every six months for check-ups after she finished her chemo, but now her physician says her she only needs to come back if something goes wrong. So she carries on, and each morning she bounces out of bed and finds a reason to be happy.
Clara Joyner turned 100 on October 11. It’s not a big deal, according to her. She says she doesn’t feel 100 years old, and she certainly doesn’t look nor act like a centenarian. But she is. That puts her in rare company; there are only 53,000 people her age in the U.S. and only 500 in her home state of Oklahoma.
“When you get as old as I am, you don’t think much about birthdays. You just let them pass you by,” Clara told us with a wink.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Clara grew up in a strict, but loving family. She and her sister were close, and they both took piano lessons. “We never did play the same songs, though,” she said in a southern drawl, “because my mother didn’t want to listen to the same tunes over-and-over from both of us.” She studied music, taught piano for years until her children were in school, and then went back to college, got a teaching certificate, and taught music.
Clara met Olen at church. They discovered they were neighbors, and he was three years younger than Clara, but they didn’t let that keep them from dating. They married in 1940 and went on to teaching careers -- Olen taught at the university level and Clara at local elementary schools. Humor was important in their marriage.
“He was my funny man,” Clara told us, “and I told people that to marry him I robbed the cradle.”
When we asked Clara if she would play for us, she popped right up from her chair, walked to the piano, sat down, and started playing a classical song.
“What am I playing?” she asked.
At first I thought she was testing us, but she wasn’t – she really didn’t know what the song was.
“It was in my head,” she explained, “so I played it.”
Most of her playing is from memory, and she can drift from song to song, sort of a memory medley. Clara can play just about any song, whether she’s ever heard it or not, if you hum or sing a little of the tune. We asked her to play I Left My Heart in San Francisco. Patty sang a few bars and Clara plinked out the melody with her right hand and then added the left hand. At first, she hit a few wrong notes, but then she “got it” and she played the song through. Generally, she plays from memory, but she also plays duets from sheet music with her daughter.
She does some of her own gardening, although she now has a gardener to help. Following a recent fall, she also added a part-time caretaker who helps her clean house and cook.
“I don’t really need help,” Clara told us, “but I’m starting to get used to the idea, and now I kind of like having a clean house that I didn’t clean myself and eating meals I didn’t cook for myself.”
When we asked her about her age, Clara says she doesn't feel old.
“As long as I have my mind,” she said, tapping her temple, “I feel like I did years ago.”
She says she thought by this age she would have “one foot in the grave and the other foot would be slipping,” but that's not how she feels.
Clara lost Olen a couple of years ago, and she misses him terribly. A lot of people her age would have given up, but she carried on, finished chemo treatments, and continued to be active. She still reads a lot, but not a book a week like she used to, because she says her eyes are starting to fail. She still goes to church on Sunday when she can get a ride, and she still plays musical hand bells with a group on Fridays.
“We play for lots of people; like schools, and hospitals … and for the old folks,” she adds with a smile. Clara played with the hand bell choir at the “old folks’ home” on Oct 11, her 100th birthday.
And Clara still pulls weeds in her garden.
“But I can’t keep up with them,” she says, “I need to get out there more often.”
We’re betting on Clara to outlast the weeds. She has already outlasted most of her generation, and she keeps going strong. She is an inspiration to us. At our age, loss is part of life. Now, it’s not just grandparents and elderly neighbors -- now, we’re starting to lose aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends. Each loss is hard; like a body blow that knocks the wind out of you. It’s hard to deal with, and hard to keep from getting down. But each time another loss starts to affect us we think of Clara. She has lost siblings, nearly all of her friends, and even her husband. But Clara still finds reasons to be happy; motives to go on. Each day is a gift to Clara, a new beginning. She’s blazing a terrific trail for the rest of us to follow.