I asked Downing Kay, who turns 109 next month, for the secret to such a long life, and the answer came quickly: "Lemon juice."
"Noooooooo," she says.
"Nooooooo," she insisted.
Just lemon juice. "The juice of half a lemon," she says. "Mixed with warm water. I took it every day until I was 100."
And why did she stop the daily dose?
"I lived to be 100, and I thought that was long enough."
Maybe she'd had it with life. Maybe she'd had it with lemon juice. Whatever her reason, the reduction in daily citrus did not seem to hurt her.
Aside from some problems with her eyesight — she needs a little help with letters during her Saturday night Scrabble games — Mrs. Kay's health appears good. She does the Zumba thing once a week. She curls a light dumbbell.
If I had not known she was 108, and if you'd told me she was, say, 88, I probably would have believed it. But I doubt I would have had the pleasure of meeting her.
It's like this: I got a tip that, while Downing Kay is not a baseball fan, she might be the only person in the Baltimore region who was alive when the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series.
She was born on Nov. 23, 1907. The Cubs last won the Series on Oct. 14, 1908.
So, as you probably suspected, this is one of those irresistible stories, pegged to one the nation's sports legends — the Cubs' long championshiplessness (new word for an old condition!) and their current effort to end the drought.
It's doubtful that anyone alive in the country today remembers the 1908 World Series. Adele Dunlap of New Jersey, who at 113 is considered the oldest American, would have been 5 at the time. According to the Gerontology Research Group, which tracks longevity claims, Dunlap is one of only seven supercentenarians in the U.S. — that is, Americans age 110 or more.
So, in another year, Downing Kay could be headed for some exclusive company, a situation she, perhaps more than anyone, finds incredible. Two or three times during an hourlong conversation in her apartment at the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Towson, Mrs. Kay seemed bemused at her endurance.
"I can't believe I'm living this long, honey," she said.
She was born Downing Jett and grew up in a rowhouse in the Walbrook section of Baltimore. Her father was a clothier on West Fayette Street. Her parents and four siblings later moved to a house on Carlisle Avenue in Forest Park. She remembers the area for what at the time seemed wide-open spaces. "Hanlon Park was at our back door," she says. "We ran out and crossed Powhatan Avenue and we'd be in this beautiful park."
Mrs. Kay describes her household as "strict Methodist." When a guest of her parents announced at the dinner table one night that he planned to bet on the races at Pimlico, there were gasps.
What did she and her siblings do for fun?
"We would finish dinner and my brother Samuel would go to the Victrola — the Victrola! Good Lord, I haven't used that word in such a long time! Sam would get up and turn on the Victrola and say, 'Downing, want to dance?' And we'd dance from the dining room to the living room to the dining room."
She graduated from Forest Park High School and Maryland State Normal School (now Towson University), became a schoolteacher, a wife, a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother.
A long life, and still going strong.
Two years ago, when Mrs. Kay was 106, she was featured on Comedy Central's "Inside Amy Schumer." Schumer, a Towson graduate, interviewed Mrs. Kay for an "Amy Goes Deep" segment.
Very amusing. Very cool. And that was a big deal, right?
"Just another day for me, honey."