Willie Graybeal looks back on 106 years
KANNAPOLIS — It was a flawless summer afternoon for a birthday party, not a cloud in the clear blue sky. Inside, the tables were set with lavender tablecloths topped with pink, yellow and purple balloons. Uncle George the magician, dressed in a red satin shirt and black pants, unloaded props from a bright red pickup.
It was a colorful day, and the guest of honor was wearing a floral dress of pink, purple and brown topped with a smart matching jacket. Willie Graybeal was clearly the center of attention, greeting guests at her 106th birthday celebration.
Yep, you read that right.
“Y’all come on in,” said her son, Jim Roberts, the afternoon’s host. “She’s 106!”
Jim said he was expecting some 120 people, and shortly after 2:30 p.m., the fellowship hall of Central Baptist Church was starting to fill up.
Jim worked the room, greeting friends and family. Willie was seated in a wheelchair near the front of the room, her daughter, Navonia Dixon, beside her in a scooter. Willie can’t see well, but once someone greeted her and made an introduction, she knew exactly who they were.
Jim ticked off his aunts’ and uncles’ names on one hand. Willie had three brothers and a sister, so there were lots of nieces and nephews on hand to bring birthday greetings. Many live in the Kannapolis area, while others live in Willie’s native Wilkes County.
The daughter of Jerden “Jerd” Wyatt and Lela Wyatt, Willie was born Aug. 22, 1907. She came to Kannapolis at age 18 to work in Cannon Mills. She worked in the spooler room and retired at age 63 to care for Jim’s two young children.
Willie and her first husband, Arnold Roberts, had three children. Their oldest daughter, Jean Aldridge, died in 2011. Years ago, Jean had a mother’s pin made for Willie with all three children’s names on it, which Willie wore proudly on Saturday.
With live-in help, Willie continues to live in her own home. She waved at her neighbors, Fred and Alice Edwards, as they came close.
“Well, honey, I’m glad to see you,” she told Alice. From the time she was a young girl, Alice has known Willie.
As more guests arrived, Willie admitted, “I’m a little tired, but I’ll be OK.”
More than once, she was asked the secret to living until 106.
“I’ve had people to ask me that,” she said, used to the question. “I don’t question my Lord about that. That’s his business, not mine, but I thank him for it.”
Both her surviving children characterize Willie as a good Christian woman. Her second husband, Seldon Graybeal, became a preacher after they were married.
“I thought, how am I gonna be a preacher’s wife?” she said. “But I followed right along with him. Being a preacher’s wife is a great big job.”
Fortunately, Willie was a good cook.
“We did have a lot of company,” she allowed. “I cooked for whoever was there. I made casseroles with rice and other things in them.”
Navonia favored her mother’s fried chicken, while Jim said her chicken and dumplings were his favorite.
But, Willie said, “I didn’t like to make chicken and dumplings. It was hard work, but Jim was crazy about them.”
Willie oohed and aahed when young friends Caleb Allen, 5, and Emma Dobbins, 3, brought her a bouquet of mixed flowers in purples and pinks.
Their grandmother, Gaynell Crainshaw, sees Willie when she comes to the beauty shop where Gaynell works.
“I’ve known her for umpteen years,” Gaynell said. “She calls my husband, Randy, her boyfriend. She has claimed him for years!”
Willie drove a car when her first husband was living but quit driving when her second husband said her driving made him nervous. Later on, he also had to stop.
“I told him, you’re the cause of me not driving,” Willie said. “If you hadn’t yelled at me I would still be driving. But I had plenty of ways to get around. My children and grandchildren were real glad to drive me. They’d come take me wherever I needed to go.”
After Uncle George (also known as George Kluttz of Rockwell) entertained the crowd with a magic show, Gary Ritchie fed them — for free.
“I catered her 100th birthday party,” Gary said, “and I told her if she lived to be 105, I’d do her birthday for free. Well, I forgot! So I told Jim, put me down for her 106th birthday.”
He remained true to his word as guests formed a long line to pick up plates piled with barbecue, baked beans, slaw and potato chips.
Before the meal, Jim told the crowd, “I appreciate each and every one of you coming out to Mom’s party. We’re looking forward to 107. If not, I promise you I will meet her in heaven.”
In his prayer, he said, “We can’t thank you enough for leaving our mother with us for this long.”
Afterward, Jim admitted, “Mother’s tired. She’s wanting to go home. She prays that the Lord will take her home. I’m trying to keep him from it and she’s trying to get him to come on!”
“She’s here to be a blessing to others,” Gaynell said.
Everyone else in the room would certainly agree with her.
So, what does a 106-year-old wish for on her birthday?
“I want to live a happy life, and when I leave here, to go to heaven,” Willie said, before tucking into her own plate of barbecue. “That’s my heart’s desire to do that.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.