- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

DALLAS (AP) - Ms. Boots wakes early and watches sunlight gather behind the bedroom blinds that overlook her tiny backyard.

By 7 o’clock, when her caregiver arrives, she has clicked on the television and turned to Rev. Jimmy Swaggart.

“What time did you wake up?” asks the caregiver, Beverly Booker. She asks that every morning, and the answer is always about 5:30.

“I just turned that on,” Ms. Boots says of the television.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1OOQ3h7 ) reports her real name is Bernice Williams. She got her nickname 103 years ago, when she was a baby. Her mother brought her along as she did housework for a rich white family. She’d leave her in an apple crate for the family’s children to watch over. They started calling her Boots, and it stuck.

Booker puts an inhaler to Ms. Boots’ mouth. Her chest rises and falls. With each breath, a slight vapor escapes from the plastic tube. It appears, then vanishes, the way a moment passes, or a generation.

Soon comes breakfast, which Ms. Boots eats propped up in bed. Oatmeal, bananas and sausage. She grips her fork with fingers that no longer bend at the joints.

At 9:30, it’s time for a nap. Ms. Boots sleeps until the afternoon, when Booker returns. Time to get ready for her birthday party.

Ms. Boots lives with her son, Bennie Mitchell. He greets guests outside as they pull up beside the small brick home on Collins Avenue.

It’s in a neighborhood called Mill City, one of South Dallas’ poorest. Across the narrow street in an empty lot, a man sits on an overturned bucket and watches listlessly in the afternoon heat.

“Come on in and get out of that hot car,” Mitchell tells his guests.

Mitchell is 75. He’s all the family Ms. Boots has left. She was an only child. Her first husband died; her second died, too. Her other son died in 1978.

Mitchell and his mother have thick albums full of black-and-white photographs. Everyone in them, except Mitchell and Ms. Boots, is dead. You remember them, Mitchell says. But time moves forward and you move with it.

Ms. Boots’ mother, Sarah Lloyd, is in the photos. She died in 2005 at the age of 109. It’s the American Indian in their blood that lets them live so long, Ms. Boots says. “My grandmother said that her grandmother was an Indian.”

Ms. Boots is ready to greet the party guests. She’s wearing fluffy pink slippers and a house dress embroidered with pink paisley. Booker pushes her wheelchair to the living room.

“Say hello to everybody,” Booker says. Ms. Boots offers a wide smile.

Mitchell leads a woman to the wheelchair. She’s Louise Cunningham, daughter of Ms. Boots’ best friend, who died in 1999.

“Do you remember when you used to do my hair?” Cunningham asks. “You made it so beautiful.”

For almost half a century, Ms. Boots worked as a beautician. Her mother was a domestic servant, “but I didn’t like private-home work at all,” Ms. Boots says.

“Get in a little bit closer to her,” Cunningham tells her granddaughters, 5 and 6, as they pose for a photo alongside Ms. Boots.

More photos, more greetings.

“Tell ‘em about when you had Bennie,” says Terrance Jackson, a close friend of Mitchell’s.

“At that time,” Ms. Boots begins, “black folks was only delivering at Parkland.” But she knew a doctor who practiced at Baylor hospital. He was from Mabank, a little town southeast of Dallas, where her family also came from. He had delivered Ms. Boots on July 21, 1912.

“I went to him,” Ms. Boots says. The doctor couldn’t deliver a black child at Baylor, she says. So he delivered Bennie at her home.

At the party, along with Louise Cunningham, is her brother, Donald Cunningham. He is 71. He leans in beside Ms. Boots.

“Did you ever think there would be a black president?” he wants to know.

“I was very surprised,” says Ms. Boots. “I had never dreamed of having a black president. It wasn’t too long (ago) when segregation ended. Having a black president, you just couldn’t imagine that.”

Ms. Boots says desegregation was the most important thing to happen in her lifetime. “That black folks can go anywhere, sit anywhere, eat anywhere.”

But Collins Avenue, where she lives, is a monument to unachieved progress. A middle-aged white stranger here attracts salutations of “Hello, officer” and “Hey, is that the insurance man?”

Ms. Boots and her son live on property that belonged to her mother. People here used to have green lawns and nice cars. But those days passed.

Now you see dirt yards and boarded up windows.

Ms. Boots worked until she was 80 years old, when her mother needed care. She can’t understand so many people in her neighborhood not working, wandering up and down the street with no place to be.

As the party goes on, Booker’s boss, Samuel Ikechukwu Asadu, arrives. He runs a home health care business. He brings his two children and a silvery helium balloon. Booker has cared for Ms. Boots for several years, and Asadu takes pride in her lasting health.

“Tell me your secret,” Asadu says. “How did you make it this long?”

“I don’t know,” says Ms. Boots. “I don’t have any secrets.”

Six o’clock passes, and the ancient woman’s dark eyes turn glassy and red.

Booker notices. “You ready to go to bed?”

“My hip,” Ms. Boots says quietly. Her smile has faded. She sat upright too long.

Booker wheels her to bed. The sunlight behind the blinds turns to dusk.

The day has passed quickly, like the years.


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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