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'End of the trail' is still a ways off

By Kenton Robinson

Publication: The Day

Published September 29. 2010 4:00AM   Updated September 29. 2010 9:09AM
Above, Martha Montgomery, 95, of Norwich sits in a pew at the Union Baptist Church, which she began attending in July 1940. Montgomery continues to be deeply involved in the church, where she is the oldest member. She arranges Communion on the first Sunday of each month, "taking care of those glasses and getting the juice, which they call the wine, all together."

Martha Montgomery is razor thin, and when she stands to greet you, she stands straight and tall, her iron-gray hair pinned back, her eyes cloudy with years.

Ask her how she got to the age of 95, and she answers in a high, sweet, raspy voice: "I'll tell you what I tell the younger folks when they ask me, 'What do you do?' ... I tell them, 'Listen, there's nothing that I do ... but maybe something that I'm not doing.'"

She chuckles as she recalls their typical reaction: "Oh, no, I know what I gotta quit doin'."

And now she laughs out loud.

She's come far from her roots, born as she was in the tiny town of Homerville, Ga., on May 23, 1915, a time and a place as distant as history itself.

"When I was growing up, which was long ago," she says, laughing again, "we lived out in the country in a small place, and we had to walk to school, maybe a mile and a half every day, which I thought was five miles then ...

"Out there in the country, there was no television. We didn't know nothing about television. But we had a radio. Before the radio, we had the Victrola."

Martha Montgomery was Martha Fullwood then, and she was a twin. But her twin sister, Mary, had died at the age of 18 months. And Martha's father had died when Martha was just 3.

And so she grew up with her older sister, Linnie, her mother and her stepfather, Dan Rankins, a man who worked in the sawmills down in that part of Georgia, and then for a time in South Carolina, before "we went back to Homerville in 1929, the Depression ... you heard about the Depression?" she says and laughs.

Some of her fondest memories from those times are of her godmother, Evelina Black, who "always took my sister and me" to carnivals, the circus, family funerals and the occasional showing of a silent movie at an area church or school.

"She took us to every place everything was going on," Montgomery says. "She'd ask my mother and my mother would say, 'I'll give you some money,' and she'd say, 'No, Willis - that was her husband - give me money already for the children.'"

But that's not the punch line to the story.

"So after we grew up, and we were grown up and got married, we said to her we appreciated how good she was to us, just like we were her children and she didn't have any children," Montgomery says. "She said, 'Listen, you don't have to thank me; I should thank you children ... because my husband Willis was so jealous I couldn't go anyplace unless I take you two. I'd tell him I want to go ... and he'd say, 'You're bringing Linnie and Martha with you? You can go if you take them.'"

Montgomery cherishes another memory from those days. She was 17 and working for a woman who had two young girls.

"One day they asked me to bring them to the beginning of the woods to pick some violets, so I said sure," she says. "I said, 'I'm going a little farther in. You stay here.' And when I got where there was more beautiful violets, I called them in."

And then, just as the girls came into the deeper shadows of the woods, Montgomery saw "some pieces of wood, and I saw part of a name."

"I saw on a piece of wood the letters OOD, and I realized that this was where my twin sister was buried, that this was the old cemetery. The cemetery for the black folks was up above that but was right close to where the old cemetery was.

"So when I got home I told my mother just the very spot I found it in, and she said, 'That's it, that's Mary's grave.' I was happy that I found my baby sister's grave. ... That was one of my happy, happy times."

Montgomery came to Norwich by way of Florida, where her husband, Walter Dallas Montgomery, worked in the citrus groves until the terrible winter of 1939-40, when many of them were destroyed by frost.

She had an aunt in Norwich who suggested there was work to be had there, and so her husband came up and got a job tearing up the old trolley tracks that ran through the city. Martha Montgomery soon followed, their own two little girls, Lois and Laforest, in tow.

"I always said that when I was growing up: 'When I get married, I just want two children,'" she says.

Hard to believe, then, that she has 18 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and 19 great-great-grandchildren today. She separated from her husband long ago and is hard-pressed to remember exactly when he died. In his 60s, she believes.

In Norwich, Montgomery worked a number of jobs, doing domestic work, spending some time in a shoe factory and, her longest employer, working for 20 years in the "vegetable room" and then the dining hall of Norwich State Hospital.

The vegetable room was where she and a man supervised 16 patients as they peeled the carrots, potatoes and other vegetables from the hospital's gardens for the dining hall.

"They were just like the children at school sitting at a desk and everybody knew their place, where they were supposed to sit, and they knew their knife to use and their scraper, every one just like children did, little children going to school, they'd know where they were supposed to sit. They'd know their books, they'd know their lessons.

"So I had to see over them and make sure the knives ... They wasn't supposed to leave the building with the knife. I made sure. I picked up the knife box every morning and write down the amount of knives and scrapers in the box. To make sure, when they finished, that every knife would be there. If one was short, we had to find it.

"And we would find it every time. Somebody would try to slip out with it to get even with somebody they had an argument with on the ward." Montgomery laughs. "It was just like kids."

Montgomery retired from the state hospital in 1980, but after being home for a year she decided she needed to work again, so - telling her children she was just going to work for one more year - she got a job with United Community Services as a home health aide.

And "one more year" stretched into 12. Finally, she retired from that job, too, and stayed home for another year before deciding, once again, that she still wanted to work. When she got a call from a woman whose husband she'd cared for, she took on the job of caring for that woman. And that job lasted another five years.

"I liked all my jobs," she says. "I liked to go out again, but I think I've reached the end of the trail now."

Not quite.

Montgomery continues to be involved in the local chapter of the NAACP and deeply involved in the Union Baptist Church, where she is the oldest member. She arranges the communion on the first Sunday of each month, "taking care of those glasses and getting the juice, which they call the wine, all together."

Her church is deeply important to her.

"All of my relatives was Baptists. So I'm still a Baptist, but my children, mostly they have other churches they attend. Because now, especially these last few years, our church is very small in membership and there's not a lot going on," she says.

They belong, she says, to larger churches that sponsor all sorts of activities that appeal to the young.

"I don't say it to them, but I want to say, I hope they continue ... " Montgomery pauses to gather her thoughts. "They want to have their heaven on earth. I hope they keep it in mind that they serve the Lord and not the devil. ... Oh, dear, they're always, 'Oh, we did this and we're doing that.' And I say, 'In church?'"

Needless to say, when she was a young girl back in Homerville, she never dreamed she'd ever live this long.

"Oh, no. My mother passed away at 54 years old. ... In those days, people didn't live as long as today. And I remember her saying, 'I'm getting old now; I'm almost 40 years old.' People was elderly people when they was 40 years old in those days out in the country.' "

k.robinson@theday.com

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SPECIAL REPORT

Between 2000 and 2005, the population of those 85 and older grew by 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing demographics. Kenton Robinson interviewed and Abigail Pheiffer photographed some of these nonagenarians.

View the entire series at www.theday.com/90thenew70.

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