Lula Vestal turns 102
Lula Vestal didn’t get sick in the great influenza pandemic that started in 1918, but she was the only in her family who didn’t, she says.
It was at the end of World War I, and she believes the disease came to the United States with the soldiers who were returning home.
Lula, who was born in Mountain City, Tenn., in 1909, was only 9 or 10 when the “influenz-y” struck her household in 1919. She was the only one out of the family of seven — she had two brothers and two sisters — who didn’t come down with the dreaded disease, which claimed millions of lives.
Perhaps that was an early sign that Lula was hardier than most folks. Even now, at 102, Lula’s only medication is for her blood pressure, which is sometimes too low.
But back to that flu outbreak.
The doctor came to their house, but had no medicine to offer, she remembers.
And so little Lula walked two miles, with snow on the ground, to fetch a quart of moonshine to bring back for her family.
That’s what the doctor recommended, she recalls.
“It made ’em better,” she says. Or at least it didn’t hurt, because they all recovered.
That was the first story I heard from Lula when I went to visit her recently at the home near High Rock Lake where she lives with her daughter Loraine Richardson Goodman, 82, her grandson, Charles Richardson, 62, his wife, Shelly, and their two daughters, Caitlin, 15, and Rhiane, 10.
Last year, when Lula turned 101, Shelly and I worked together to put a small item in the Post about it, but Lula’s photo did not make it in time to accompany the item about her 101st birthday.
Shelly came back to the Post this year to tell us that Granny was turning 102, and as I heard her family’s story, it seemed like a good time to meet Lula and Loraine, Lula’s only surviving child, who is struggling with breast cancer.
Although communication is a bit difficult, since Lula has lost much of her hearing (as well as her vision), her mind is keen, and her manner is warm.
She talks about growing up on a farm in Tennessee. Back in those days, she says, they used herbs for medicine, and a doctor’s bill was $2.
“We raised our food,” she remembers: corn, beans, greens, peas, as well as cows and hogs and chicken.
She had a “very nice” childhood she said. Some of her best memories are of her mother, who was “very kind and good and loving.”
One of her vivid memories from childhood was one night when she watched two lanterns coming through the dark, getting closer and closer to her house.
“I ran to my mother and asked, ‘What in the world is that?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’”
It turned out that the lanterns were hung on the neighbor’s new Model T, to serve as headlights.
Lula got married to her first husband, Charles Woodard, in 1926. She was 16 years old and he was 20.
When the Depression hit, Lula was a young married woman raising children. She eventually had five: Paul, Ray, Charles, Ruby and Loraine.
“Roosevelt went in and times got a little better,” she says.
“We had to use stamps to get food and shoes,” she says. “You didn’t get many stamps — you had to be careful.”
Loraine remembers that her mother was always helping someone.
“Anybody got sick in the neighborhood, she’d set up with them, try to comfort them and take food, anything she could do,” Loraine says.
Lula would put snowsuits on Loraine and her sister, and they would go trudging along behind her on her excursions to help neighbors and friends.
At some point, she and Charles divorced, and around 1947, when Loraine was 17, she married Carl Vestal. It’s hard for her to come up with the year, but she remembers that it was a July 17.
They lived in Alvarado, Va., where Lula was a homemaker who loved to garden. Family members remember that she always had a big bed of irises in her front yard, all different types.
Lula and Loraine team up to tell the story about the time a bear showed up at their door. It lumbered onto their porch, attracted by a bucket of potato and apple peelings.
When it left, it “took the bucket right with it,” Lula says.
Carl died in 1984, and not long after that, Lula’s house caught on fire. She was overcome with smoke, and Loraine — who lived in Salisbury but happened to be visiting — remembers dragging her mother out of the burning house, saving her life.
“She coughed for a month,” Loraine remembers.
After that, Lula moved to Salisbury to live with Loraine, and they have been living together for the past 27 years.
The Methodist church was a big part of Lula’s life, and she sang in the church choir.
“She’s been a good Christian all of her life, trying to help people,” Loraine says. And she’d do it in “snow or rain or sleet,” Loraine says.
When asked her favorite hymn, Lula doesn’t need to stop and think.
“I’ll Meet You in the Morning.”
She begins to sing it, and I realize that I need to try to capture this moment, even if it’s just on a cell phone video.
After she sings the first verse, Shelly asks if she can sing it again, this time with me recording.
She still has a strong voice, as you can see if you watch the video on the Salisbury Post website.
Loraine says that her mother’s memory is good.
“If I want to know anything,” I ask her.”
Lula mowed the yard with a push mower until she was 92, when Loraine finally convinced her to stop. Lula became less active in her 90s as her vision worsened.
Loraine has taken care of her mother until recent years. These days, Loraine is dealing with breast cancer, and her daughter-in-law Shelly has stepped up to help care for both women, although Loraine still manages to help her mother take her blood pressure medication each day.
Lula eats healthfully, Shelly says, starting every day with a bowl of oatmeal. She always got plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables from her garden. She never smoked or drank alcohol.
She and Loraine both enjoy the company of Toby, the family’s “chiweenie” (a cross between a chihuaua and a Dachsund).
“That’s my baby,” Loraine says of Toby. “I’ve talked to him so much he understands everything I say.”
Lula’s best advice to people is to “be honest, do the best you can, help people all you can. Be good to everybody.”
Also, she believes that it’s “not how long you live, but how you live.”
Lula says her mother is “a grand old girl.
“She’s been my friend all my life, not only my mother.”
I tell Lula goodbye and tell her I hope she has a good day on Saturday, her birthday. She grasps my hand firmly and thanks me.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” she says.
Happy birthday, Lula Vestal.