Willie Braxton turns to the piano, places her long, supple fingers on the keyboard and plays the old-time gospel hymn Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior with spirit and gusto and a jazzy beat. She sings softly as she plays.
Hear my humble cry,
While on others Thou art calling,
Do not pass me by.
Braxton has been playing gospel music about 90 years now. She's 102, and Pass Me Not is one of her favorites. She played it when she was honored recently at the 13th annual Maryland Centenarians Recognition Luncheon.
She was born, grew up and lived most of her life in or near Lynchburg, Va. But she now lives with her daughter, Colleen Braxton Thomas, in Springdale, Prince George's County. She's one of more than 1,100 people 100 years old or older who live in Maryland, according to Odessa D. Dorkins, co-chair of the centenarian committee. Sixty-five showed up for the luncheon.
"I was born in Bedford County, in the country, in Virginia," Braxton says. "I been a farm girl. Plant tobacco. Hoe it. Bin it. Cut it. Haul it. Worked on the farm. My daddy had 100 acres."
His name was William Craighead, and she got her name, "Willie," from him. Her mother, Ollie Bell Craighead, was her first teacher when she was 10 or 11 years old.
"She's the one who taught me how to count music," Braxton says. She remembers one of the first hymns she played was the childhood favorite Jesus Loves Me.
Ollie Bell Craighead was organist at the Altha Grove Baptist Church, 10 miles out in the country from Lynchburg. Braxton was baptized in a nearby creek.
"They stopped that creek up and made a pond," Braxton says. "Five or six of us [were] baptized when I was baptized, third Sunday in November."
"They had to crack the ice," her daughter says.
Braxton still belongs to the church, which just celebrated its 132nd anniversary.
"My mother played there until I got old enough, then I played," Braxton says. Her sister took her turn when Braxton married and then played at the church 50 years. "In those times we didn't have anything but an organ."
She thinks perhaps her mother was the first organist at the Altha Grove church and may have brought the organ to the little country church.
"Back there in those days, not too many people could play," she says. The choir practiced at her family's home. And her mother had a good voice, Braxton says.
"My daddy did, too," she says. And he sang in the choir.
Braxton looks great in crisp white slacks and a pink top. She sits and stands quite erectly. And although she complains that her knees are a little creaky these days, she's hardly ever had anything more than a cold all her life, and she doesn't take any medicine.
She cooks and sews and takes care of the flower beds around the house. She used to make jeans and coats for her children. She still makes her own breakfast.
"This morning I ate three slices of bacon and an egg and toast and coffee," she says. That's her breakfast pretty much every day. "I don't get fat, though. But I'm a good eater. I'm just as skinny as I can be."
She was the oldest of six children in the Craighead family. And they were generally a long-lived family, especially the women. Her two brothers have passed, one at 92. But her sister Georgia Everett will be 100 in November. Braxton will be 103 on Nov. 9. Another sister, Mamie Everett, is 96. The baby, Thelma Davis, is in her 80s.
"Her mother was 96 when she died," says Braxton's daughter. Braxton's father died at 83.
She lived on the farm until she was 24 and got married to a railroad man named Pearl Braxton. He's been dead 38 years. They had three children. She has 15 grandchildren. She and her daughter estimate there are about 30 great-grandchildren and a couple of great-greats.
Braxton doesn't have any particular advice for people who want to live to be 100. But she's never smoked or drunk alcohol.
"Trust in God," she says.