‘I’m thankful’: A centenarian’s approach to life

Courtesy of Martha Boles
Martha Mae Dorsey Boles, shown here in her late 20s, recently turned 103. She remembers growing up with a boy and girl who would later become jazz artist Nat King Cole and Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks.

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Throughout the world, more people are living beyond the 100-year marker. And Martha Mae Dorsey Boles, age 103, is one of them. The mother of four, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of four, says gratitude has contributed to her longevity.

“When I can’t go to sleep, I think about all the good things that went on in my life, and then I have such good sleep and good dreams,” she says.

Why We Wrote This

What’s essential to a happy life? For this centenarian, gratitude for the good things in life has seen her through its trials – and leaves her counting her blessings to this day.

One of the many good memories she’s thankful for is listening to a fellow student at Chicago’s Fuller Elementary School play the piano during assemblies. That young man was Nathaniel Adams Cole, known to the world as Nat King Cole, a jazz pianist, singer, and the first Black man to host a nationally broadcast television show.

Mrs. Boles says she’s also learned that some things need to be forgotten if you’re going to be happy. “If something disturbs me, I just throw it out of my mind,” she says. “Life has disappointments, but I put them aside. My mother used to say, ‘Love will cure everything.’ It’s certainly kept me going … and I’m thankful.”

If age is more than a number, what else is it? For Martha Mae Dorsey Boles, age 103, it’s also an increased sense of thankfulness. Mrs. Boles was born in 1918, the last time there was a pandemic. She was too young to remember that public health crisis, and for this one, she’s too lovingly sheltered by her family to be exposed to its harm.

Throughout the world, more people are living beyond the 100-year marker. In the U.S., the Census Bureau predicts there will be more than 130,000 centenarians by 2030. That’s a small number of people as a percentage of the country’s nearly 334 million citizens. But centenarians are worth watching because it’s not just their length of days but also their quality of life that makes knowing more about them vital to us all.

While science has acknowledged many factors leading to longevity, Mrs. Boles, the mother of four, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother of four, credits one more: gratitude. She says being thankful for the good things in life has played a role in her overall health, especially now that she’s in her 100s. 

Why We Wrote This

What’s essential to a happy life? For this centenarian, gratitude for the good things in life has seen her through its trials – and leaves her counting her blessings to this day.

“When I can’t go to sleep, I think about all the good things that went on in my life, and then I have such good sleep and good dreams,” says Mrs. Boles. Longevity has been a family tradition: Her mother lived to be 99, and three of her six siblings well into their 90s.

Courtesy of Martha Boles
Mrs. Boles, pictured here at 102, says being thankful for the good things in life has played a role in her overall health. “Life has disappointments, but I put them aside," she adds.

Memories of history in the making

Some of the good memories she’s thankful for include listening to a fellow student at Chicago’s Fuller Elementary School play the piano during assemblies. That young man was Nathaniel Adams Cole, known to the world as Nat King Cole, a jazz pianist, singer, and the first Black man to host a nationally broadcast television show. She remembers her younger sister, Anita, playing with Gwendolyn Brooks – the first Black recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and Illinois’ poet laureate for more than 30 years.

There are memories of her DuSable High School friend Timuel Black, the Chicago historian and civil rights leader. Mr. Black, who died this year at 102, and Mrs. Boles frequently attended a school reunion that honored civics teacher Mary Herrick, until the pandemic curtailed the annual gathering.

“Miss Herrick, a white woman – all the teachers were white back then – shared African American history with us, even though it wasn’t in our schoolbooks,” recalls Mrs. Boles. “She also gathered us at her home to talk to and meet Black leaders. Once James Weldon Johnson was there.” (A poet, Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem.)

An avid reader as a child, Mrs. Boles brings new meaning to the term “lifelong learner.” Though her eyes are not what they used to be, learning hasn’t stopped, just changed media. Now, she learns by listening to the news and documentaries on public television. She is especially curious about the decades of her childhood.

“I can get on the computer and learn about anything,” she says, “I was sheltered by my parents. It wasn’t until I was a young woman that I realized that they kept a lot of things from us when we were growing up. There was a civil rights worker whose home was burned down. It was near ours. I didn’t know about that until much later in life because my family didn’t talk about hurtful subjects.”

“Love will cure everything”

What was shared, notes Mrs. Boles, was her parents’ faith, something she still finds important. This learning came more by what John Dorsey, a Baptist, and Mattie Mae Horner Dorsey, an Episcopalian did – not what they said. “My parents were quiet people,” says Mrs. Boles of her father, who worked as a hotel waiter, and her mother, a homemaker. “They let lots of people room with us until they could find a job and get settled. This was when the Great Migration was happening, and Black people were moving up from the South.”

One person who stopped by the home was a 10-year-old boy, George Boles. He was there with his grandfather, who was visiting a friend staying at the Dorseys’ home. Some years later, Martha Dorsey and George Boles met again, wed in 1947, and reared their children, remaining close until his passing in 1999. “I never felt more loved,” she says of their union.   

Courtesy of Martha Boles
Martha Mae Boles, pictured with her husband, George Boles, in 1948, made the gown she is wearing. The couple enjoyed attending dances in Chicago.

As she’s moved along in years, Mrs. Boles has come to know that things that were once considered deficits can become assets. “I always was the slowest person in the family,” she says. “My sisters used to tease, ‘Martha is slower than molasses in the winter.’ But being slow and careful is a lifesaver now. People are doing things so speedy today, and it’s just getting speedier as the years go by. I don’t cook now, but I used to take my time cooking. Now I take my time eating. If you enjoy something, you should take your time with it.”

Not one to be rushed, Mrs. Boles never drove a car, although she did take driving lessons. “I liked riding the streetcars,” she says.

Grateful for life and the gift of having many good memories, Mrs. Boles has learned that some things need to be forgotten if you’re going to be happy. “If something disturbs me, I just throw it out of my mind,” she says. “Life has disappointments, but I put them aside. My mother used to say, ‘Love will cure everything.’ It’s certainly kept me going ... and I’m thankful.”

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