VALDOSTA – As Rachel Whatley turns 104 on Jan. 9, her niece, Patricia Cawthon, remembers the woman her grandmother took her to see every summer all those years ago.
Whatley was a woman with a “funny giggle” and a welcoming attitude. She smiled just as much as she was a snappy dresser, utilizing clothes she made herself.
“I guess that’s something she kept with her from when she was a young girl,” Cawthon said. “The girls, the mothers and the grandmothers (back then) always made the clothes.”
Cawthon called Whatley an entertainer and short in stature with a big mouth to cover for it. She was one of Cawthon’s favorites growing up out of her 11 other aunts and uncles.
Even as Whatley got older and her hearing got worse, she could spout off new stories.
Cawthon remembers her last visit in 2018. She said she remembers Whatley gushing about her family – her dad, mom, visiting her hometown of Barbara County, Ala., the family home and church annually.
Her personality especially shined through when told a story about her house being broken into some years ago.
“She had her pistol and she was talking about what she was going to do to him, and I guess she scared him off,” Cawthon said. “The person ran out the door and she had called the police to make sure she was within her rights to do what she had planned to do if he had tried to hurt her. I was concerned but it was so funny how she was telling the story.”
But Cawthon’s concern waned. Where Whatley lived, no one wanted to bother her at least not in a negative sense.
To her community, Whatley was a friend and a neighbor, Cawthon said. Whatley lived in the same house on the same street in Valdosta since she was 18-years-old.
She had an accident in her home about two to three years ago and since she's lived in a nursing home. It was a heart-breaking thing to to her, Cawthon said, and it still is.
“When she first got into the nursing home, she knew she wasn’t home,” she said. “When I left to visit her, she kept saying ‘Take me home. I’m ready to go home.’ My heart was melting.”
Cawthon hasn’t seen her aunt in two years and is unsure if she’s still saying the same thing now – she hopes not. But she recognizes the reason why.
“She’s been in that same house since she was 18 and to be taken from that – that was all she knew after retirement and after being in that house for so long by herself – I can imagine the separation (anxiety) that she’s having from not being there,” Cawthon said.
Whatley is the last of her own brothers and sisters – Cawthon’s 11 aunts and uncles – and the last of her nieces and nephews with the exception of one, Cawthon said. She’s even lost a child – her only child – and her husband.
“From getting her there and being there this long, she’s healthy with no major health issues,” she said. “That’s amazing. That is absolutely amazing.”
And she had something similar to say for her aunt’s 104th birthday.
For the wealth of knowledge and wisdom her aunt has, Cawthon is forever grateful that she’s still here.
She remembers a conversation she had with Whatley and her last living nephew, asking them about their childhood and what it used to be like.
“She talked to me about the different types of games they used to play as children. I asked them about dating, what it was like to date – just little things to get an idea of what it used to be like when they were young,” she said. “It was exciting to hear stuff like that.”
Because it was segregated back when Whatley was young, she’d tell Cawthon about it and explain how things are different today. It was a blessing.
COVID-19 messed up Cawthon’s plans to visit her last year but is hoping she’ll be able to visit Whatley soon. She misses her and more than anything hopes to see her smile again.