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At 104, life's been a trip worth taking

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- In the span of a pleasant afternoon visit, Louise Ashton manages to tell the creative story behind one of her paintings hanging on the wall of her room, recite a Valentine's poem she'd written, and charm the socks off a visiting reporter by giving a stunningly accurate -- and flattering -- critique of his writing.

She also reminisced a bit about life in rural Georgia -- about riding with "Uncle Joe," the black man who worked on her father's farm, to gather cups of resin -- and talked about how much she loved her three children: Lacy Lee, Anita Bacon and Myers Pait Jr.

The visit, it might be noted by those who don't know Ashton, is nothing unusual, part of life that's played out millions of times every day by regular people all over the world. But Louise Ashton's no regular person. She's 104 years old and has the sharp wit that's been her calling card since she was born in tiny Vada on July 24, 1906.

"She's a piece of work, a remarkable lady," says Destiny Cook, gardens manager of the Morningside of Albany assisted living facility. "The experiences she's had in her life are things we'll never know."

Ashton doesn't see as well as she once did, and her hearing is by no means perfect. But her mind is keen enough to make those a half-century or more her junior envious.

"I came here when I was 94 because I didn't want my family to have to take me everywhere they wanted to go," Ashton says of her now decade-long stay at Morningside. "When I first got here I could run around these buildings like a goat; I didn't even need a walking stick.

"I don't have the sight, the hearing and the vitality as much now, but I'm fairly healthy. It's a pleasure to me to be around a lot of different people."

Lee, Ashton's baby daughter, calls her mom an "inspiration."

"Mother always said I was a blessing because I kept her young," Lee said. "When I came along, my sister was 14 and my brother was 12, so I was raised almost like an only child. I was one of the only ones of a group of about 20 girls whose mother had to work for a living, and that's something I grew to appreciate as I got older.

"I think mother has done as well as she has because she's always had to work, had to use her mind. Mr. M.W. Tift, who was chairman of the Dougherty County Commission, would call her and tell her he had to make a speech in Atlanta the next day and tell her what points he wanted to make. She'd write his speech for him. She was still working at Phoebe at 75; she's just given back so much to the community. She has always been an inspiration to those who know her."

Ashton definitely leaves a lasting impression on the people she encounters. She's even accomplished something every mother-in-law strives for: She won over her son-in-law, Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee.

"She's a really amazing woman," Lee said. "You want to talk about history, she's lived a world of it. She's a self-made person, and one of the things I'm sure she didn't tell you is that she was the chief registrar in Dougherty County during some of the most turbulent racial times.

"She's still amazingly sharp, so much so she sometimes gets upset when she watches the evening news. We have to tell her to turn off the TV when she does."

Ashton said she doesn't go out so much these days -- a dinner with her girls every week or services at First United Methodist Church, which she joined when she was 17. That would be 87 years ago.

"I love my church," she says. "Sometimes when I go I feel like I'm at home. I feel so peaceful I don't want to leave."

While discussing a poem she'd sent to her visitor in response to an item he'd written, Ashton reveals the artist that's always dwelled inside her. She tells the story behind a colorful painting that hangs on her wall -- "That's an imaginary cathedral," she says. "I imagined myself sitting in the cathedral, looking out over the ocean. I love the ocean."

She playfully recites a Valentine's poem she'd written "two or three years ago":

Will you be my Valentine?

That would be so sweet and fine.

To have your heart so close to mine,

Yes, I'll be your Valentine.

My beauty has faded, my hair has turned gray.

But I still have a yen for St. Valentine's Day.

Even with her infectuous, sunny outlook, Ashton reveals in a moment of reflection that she's prepared for what comes next in her life.

"I get around pretty well and I feel OK, but sometimes I feel like I'm nearing the end of my time," she says. "I've seen some of my dear friends here go, and it's so sad. But I've been able to share a word or two -- wish them a happy day -- and have them smile back at me.

"To have been able to give anyone else in life pleasure ... that makes the whole trip worth it."