Mississippi centenarian links strong faith to long life

Lillie Mae Word says her appetite is strong, and she still enjoys cooking for herself.

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Lillie Mae Word of Wren hasn’t raised a garden in the last couple of years.

It’s understandable, since she turned 105 years old in March. But if it would have been up to her, she’d have kept right on gardening.

“I used to have a garden till this last year,” she said. “I was a good gardener; I raised everything edible. My son couldn’t help me plow it this past year. That’s the only time I’ve missed having a garden.”

In years past, Word said the produce from her garden helped feed her and her 10 children, not only in the summer, but in the winter as well.

“I used to can,” she said. “I’d put up about a hundred jars every year. That’s what we lived on through the winter: beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, cabbage, jelly, preserves – you name it. I canned blackberries and I would make pies in the winter. That’s the best eating in the world.”

Even in lean times, food at the Word table was always plentiful and delicious, she said.

“The good Lord always took care of us,” she said. “We raised cattle and chickens and pigs, and in the winter the boys would hunt. And you could always go fishing. We’d find scaly barks and crack them. We’d have potatoes and peanuts in the fall, and the greens would last all winter.”

Word says her appetite is strong, and she still enjoys cooking for herself.

“I just eat whatever I think is good,” she said. “I still make my own breakfast every day. I love oatmeal. I’ll put some fruit in it, maybe fry me a sausage and sometimes a biscuit. I’ll make about 12 biscuits and put them in a bag, and they’ll last me all week. I can make good cornbread, too.”

Word remembers when her rural area first got electricity, in 1945, and when she first got air conditioning, in 1987.

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“Lord, we didn’t know anything about air conditioning!” she said. “Don’t mention it! We’d sit under the trees and get good fresh air. That was our air conditioning. I got air conditioning in ’87, but I don’t like it; it’s just not for me.”

After her husband died in 1987, Word continued to live independently. A few years ago her daughter, Helen Word Burton, moved in next door, after a 30-year-long civil service career in New York City. Word said her visits to see her daughter in the Big Apple were more than enough of city life for her.

“I never cared about the city,” she said. “Too many folks up there. I’ve been right here all my life, and I’m not planning on leaving here.”

Originally from Egypt, Word married and moved to Wren in 1934, where she became a member of Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church. She said she has been there ever since.

“I love my church,” she said. “I try not to miss. I’ve been an usher for 45 years. I greet everybody and pass out the programs and try to make people comfortable.”

Word said many things have changed at Mt. Pleasant in the 80-plus years while she has been there, but the church is still an important part of her life.

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“So many have passed away,” she said. “But we’re still doing fine. The Lord said, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.’”

Asked about the secret of her remarkable health, Word said her faith helps keep her strong.

“The Lord has kept me going,” she said. “I’ve lived a good life and I’ve stayed healthy and well farming. I can see and I can hear, and I do things to help myself. I don’t have any aches and pains, and I can walk straight without a cane. I just take my time.”

Word credits her family for passing along the faith that has sustained her through good times and bad.

“My grandmamma brought us up to read our Bible every day,” she said. “Times were hard back in the ’20s and ’30s. Money was scarce, but the Lord made a way. He told us every day wouldn’t be happy, but he never let us down. I’m still here and I thank the Lord for it.”

While she enjoys every day of life, Word said she has no fear of dying.

“The Lord said we get our three score and ten,” she said. “I’m way past that. I tell him every day in my prayers, ‘When you get ready for me, I’m ready.’ When I wake up I say, ‘I’m just here waiting on you.’”

Word’s advice for those who will come after her is simple but profound.

“You’ve got to love one another and believe in him, not yourself,” she said. “You’ve got to keep his commandments. You can’t just live any kind of way if you want to see his kingdom. You’ve got to live right.”

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