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4 Profound Life Lessons Learned from a 102-Year-Old Woman

By Mary Lou Harris June 28, 2019 Mindset

Occasionally, an online magazine geared to healthy living for older adults pops into my mailbox. I believe it originally came to me as a courtesy after participating in the Delaware Senior Games.

I appreciate receiving Vital, as the magazine has much worthwhile information for seniors. The most recent issue has a treasure of an article that grabbed my attention and didn’t let go.

So, as Vital shared with me, I share with you the story of a 102-year-old woman, Wilhelmina Benson, whose life transcends the major changes in demographics, laws, and mores of a century.

In summary, her parents were born into slavery, moved into sharecropper status after emancipation, then became the builders of a close-knit community and founders of a church in Delaware.

As an adult, Wilhelmina, along with her husband, built an active social life meeting and befriending celebrities. Today, with the help of her son and her health care community, she continues to live independently.

What do we learn from this brief, but poignant story of a life lived through some of the most difficult circumstances in American history?

What is the wisdom we as a senior community of women can glean from Wilhelmina’s journey through a century of change?

Build Friendships and Relationships

Even, or perhaps especially, in the most difficult situations life can give us, strong relationships keep us strong. Wilhelmina and her husband Bobby Benson were dancers, part of the entertainers at the whites-only Cotton Club in Harlem.

While working there, Wilhelmina made friends with many of the black musicians and other entertainers, including a close friendship with a young Ella Fitzgerald. Her relationship with her dance partner and husband lasted 62 years.

Remember Who You Are and Where You Came from by Owning Your History

The dedication of Wilhelmina and her family to their difficult family history will benefit their future generations. Her son applauds the connection with family history that helps him understand who he is.

How many of us have questions about our history that can’t be easily answered? The journey of Wilhelmina’s family from slavery to becoming principals in the literal building of a community is a history worthy of preservation.

Whether or not that history includes a painful and difficult path, it can answer questions for us, our children, and grandchildren.

Successfully Moving Forward in Your Life, Otherwise Known as Perseverance

None of us chooses in what era and what situation we are born. Sometimes our choices are limited by our gender, our race, our sexual identity, or whatever other elements our society finds problematic.

We may be born into poverty resulting from injustice or circumstances, but perseverance such as that shown by Wilhelmina’s family serves as an example.

They coped, worked, and moved forward in their lives. It is a lesson I will revisit when I find myself feeling I have in some way been shortchanged.

The Strength of Spirituality or Faith in Whatever Form

Upon moving to the State of Delaware, Wilhelmina’s father joined members of the community in founding a church for the diaspora.

Her parents wrote and composed hymns. Wilhelmina’s social life as a child included participation with church choir. As an adult, for 65 years she has carried on the connection with a spiritual life as a member of her church.

How Can Wilhelmina’s Long Life Encourage Us?

As women in our 60s and beyond, have we built strong foundations through our lives? If we have not, do we believe it is too late to do so? Wilhelmina’s longevity would say no.

None of us knows how long we will be on this earth. But, as long as we are still here, we can continue, or begin, to forge new friendships and partnerships.

We can build family through those friendships or, where it is healthy to do so, bond and gain wisdom from our family members, whether they be the older generation or the younger ones.

Sometimes friendships with our adult children can be an unexpected pleasure as they move through their adult years.

Do you find ways to contribute, even on a very small scale to the larger community? Unless it is your calling, there is no need to build a new community or found a new church as Wilhelmina’s family did. But, can we, as we are able, find minimal ways to make our corner of the world a slightly better place?

A happy 103rd birthday to Wilhelmina in advance.

Can you think of family or friends who have lived an unusually long life? Do their lives offer lessons to share? What would those lessons be? What do you think your life can teach the next generations?

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The Author

Mary Lou Harris is a proponent of active living, community volunteerism and inquisitive travel. After a post age 60 retirement from a career in public service, she expanded those interests to include ultra-trail running, hiking and extended-stay travel. She can be contacted through her website or on Twitter at @stillarunner.

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