Celebrating a century

Published 7:50 pm Monday, May 24, 2010

Della Smith’s memory goes back so far she can hardly quantify the changes she’s seen in the world.

On May 15, Smith celebrated her 100th birthday with her church family at New Calvary Baptist Church at the Suffolk National Guard Armory.

“I feel good about being 100,” Smith said. “A lot of people are ashamed of their age, but I’m not. I’m thankful. I’m proud of living this long.”

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“She always said she’d live to 100,” said her long-time friend Helena Joyner. “She always said that God would let her live to 100. I could fill a book, and it would be a bestseller, with all the stories she tells. She says things that can just bring tears to your eyes.”

Smith was raised by a family her mother gave her to when she was 8 or 9 years old. She did housework for them, according to Joyner.

“It was a different world back then,” Joyner said. “I remember her telling me a story of when she worked at a café in New York, and she had to come through the back door.”

One of the biggest differences between the world she was raised in and 2010 is “Now, we have a black president,” Smith said. “I always knew it would happen eventually. I’m glad I lived to see it.”

For her 100th birthday, the President and Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson sent her birthday cards.

Although she was born and raised in North Carolina and later moved to Florida after marrying Ananize Smith at a young age, she has lived in Suffolk for more than 50 years.

“When I came here the homes all seemed newer and nicer, and the kids were all nicer,” Smith said. “If you look at some kids, now, they’ll cuss you out.”

While in Suffolk, Smith remembers working at the Planter’s Peanut Factory for more than 25 years. Every day, she walked to work in her blue uniform.

“Back then, some people used to dress up to go to work, change into their uniforms and then get dressed up to go back home, but not Della,” Joyner said. “Della wore her uniform walking to work. She didn’t care that she worked there.”

In fact, Smith remembers her job — now done by machines — at the factory with fondness.

Although she never received any schooling, Smith was able to teach herself to sew, upholster furniture and customize drapes.

“I got all this from the junkyard,” Smith said, motioning to the wooden framed living room furniture that she re-upholstered herself.

“She knew how to upholster furniture, can her own vegetables, sew men’s suits, make pocketbooks, hats and sold jewelry she made uptown,” her Ethel Babb, her nurse.

Smith remembers “uptown” — now, commonly referred to as downtown — when it had brick streets, was bustling with people and had stores in every building.

While many things — both in the world and Smith — have changed throughout the years, two constants have remained for Smith.

“Ever since I’ve known her, she has been a person who sits down and tells it like it is,” Joyner said. “She speaks openly and will always tell the truth. She’s also a giving person. She’s not a stingy person and believes in giving whatever she can.”