9/11 took on additional sadness for our family last year when a woman we held dear passed away. Today I would like to take a final look back at an extraordinary life.
A year ago this weekend, Gertrude Baines, a woman who had been alive since Grover Cleveland’s second administration, passed away in her sleep in an L.A. convalescent home at the age of 115 years, 158 days. For most of 2009 she had been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest person.
A few days later, my wife Kimi and I were honored to be among the fifty friends gathered at a mortuary in South L.A. to say goodbye to the woman we knew as “Mother Baines.”
Mother Baines was born in Georgia to parents who were former slaves on April 6, 1894, less than thirty years after the close of the Civil War. In the year she was born Utah became the 45th state and Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time.
She was five when the twentieth century began, nine when the Wright Brothers first flew, and 10 when Einstein gave the equation E=mc2 to the world. She was a young woman of 23 when America entered World War I, and was 25-years-old when women were first allowed to vote. Around this time she got married and had a daughter.
Seven years later, “talkies” were first heard in theaters. She was 35 when the stock market crashed in 1929, and a decade older than that when Gone With the Wind had its premiere. It was during this period that her daughter died of typhoid and her marriage ended in divorce.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor when she was 46, and she celebrated her 50th birthday a couple of months before D-Day. Six years later she would have heard the first reports of a new war in Korea, and although she didn’t realize it at the time, her life was near its mid-point when the conflict ended three years later.
During the decade of her sixties, Elvis hit the scene, James Dean died in a car crash, and Sputnik launched the Space Age. At some point, she migrated north and became a maid at Ohio State University where she retired when she turned 65 in 1959.
Mother Baines was only a couple of months shy of her 70th birthday when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. During this decade she also witnessed the height of the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.
Watergate claimed Nixon’s presidency when she was 80. The Vietnam War ended the following year, and Ronald Reagan, who was nearly seventeen years her junior, was inaugurated when she was 86.
During her nineties, the Cold War ended and the first Gulf War was launched. During Bill Clinton’s first term, she turned 100-years-old. She was 107 at the time of the 9/11 attacks and would live for exactly eight more years into one additional presidential administration (her twenty-first!).
As a one-degree separation from slavery, she was our last link to that sad era in our nation’s history. She survived just long enough to get the last laugh on bigotry by seeing a black man elected to our nation’s highest office.
Mother Baines’ longevity can’t be taught – it’s either in the DNA or it isn’t. What can be learned is to approach a life, of whatever length, with the patience, courage, and dignity that she brought to hers.