The Diamond Years 

Is it possible that old, old age may be the time of your life?

He met his bride, Mary, on a spring day in 1983 during a church picnic at Pocahontas State Park. “He said, ‘I’m going to marry you,’” recalls Mary Jefferson, who is 84. It took a year of courtship before she agreed. “I was lying in bed one morning, and I said, ‘He’s going to be my husband.’”

Since then the two have shared an apartment at what they call the 700 Building, a residential home for seniors run by the city housing authority in the Randolph community. Their former spouses deceased, together they have 21 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Jefferson has outlived a daughter and two sons.

Longevity suits him. He drove his cars — a Buick and a Chevrolet — into his 80s and walked to the grocery store well into his 90s. When a doctor suggested he get some help getting around, the advice didn’t take. “I put that walker down,” he says. “I used it long enough.”

Mostly he spends his days eating, sleeping and living a life drawn from routine. To outsiders, it’s a life of “The Price is Right,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “Family Feud,” in which looking out windows is a pastime and decades unfold as wrinkles in time.

If Jefferson has seen some things and done some things in his long, long life, he is not quick to tell them. He appears content to leave that up to those close to him, such as his friend White. She’s now in her 40s. When she was a young girl her grandfather was a preacher at a church on Texas Avenue — Highway Christian, where Jefferson also attended. Everybody knew him as Deacon Jefferson, she explains. It’s what she calls him today.

“He was a real responsible deacon,” White says. Regularly he’d drive to rural places like Louisa and Goochland counties to pick up friends or relatives who didn’t have transportation and take them to services. Jefferson has always been an usher of his faith, she says. “I remember as a young teenager he’d stay at the church before funerals because he didn’t like the bodies to be there alone.”

It’s impossible not to notice that Jefferson looks younger than his age, although in his case, at 104, there isn’t much of a basis for comparison. He has come to the assembly room inside the 700 building for his regular birthday visit from White and to talk to a reporter and have his picture taken. He appears amused by the fuss. Pinned to his lapel is a red ribbon that reads “aged to perfection.” Between questions, most of which Mary Jefferson answers graciously, he stares through a window into a neighborhood he’s watched knocked down and built up again, one that must cocoon him now.

He sits erect with his hands folded in his lap. He wears regular signs of age. His hair is white, matching a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes twinkle behind the glare of glasses. He can move briskly, though a bit unsteadily, without a walker. But his spirit seems to dwell in a place unmarked by time.

White points out her new closely cropped hairdo and teasingly asks whether Jefferson would like to see his wife’s styled the same. He flashes a wide smile and laughs gently. He prefers her hair the way it is, falling to her shoulders in long smooth waves, Mary Jefferson assures. The deacon nods a yes. He’s unmoved when told he shares a birthday with Vincent Van Gogh or Alexander Graham Bell — or that William McKinley was president when he was born in 1900. And if there’s a secret to his unbelievable number of years, it’s too tender to tell. “I think he’s a lamb,” Mary Jefferson observes. “He stays quiet all the time.”

It’s 11:30 a.m. and “The Price is Right” is on TV, which reminds her that she’s left lunch on the stove. She excuses herself to check on it. Jefferson turns his head from the window and sees her chair empty. White explains to him that she’ll be back momentarily. “It’s getting ready to snow,” he remarks of the looming gray sky. And with that, he gets up from his chair. He crosses the room in hurried, barely balanced steps, chasing after his bride and smiling his way home. S

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