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From the archive | Stories of a 112-year old lexington county woman span three centuries

READY FOR VISITORS

Bertha Leila Bachman Shull perches her frail body on the edge of the white metal daybed with its pink polka dot bedspread.

Behind Miss Leila, a double window looks out on the front yard of her daughter's home and the world beyond.

In front of her, the expanse of the living room; the fireplace mantel with family photos and hanging crosses, a crystal-cut candy dish on top of a wooden coffee table, her powders, oils and a yellow brush, underneath.

Miss Leila's 81-year-old daughter, Lettie Mae Smith, "fixed her up" for visitors.

A Sunday dress on a Tuesday, with long stripes of blue, green and purple, hangs on Miss Leila's bonethin frame. A painted broach decorates the loose bodice. Her gray hair is held smooth in a short braided ponytail. Purple slippers and white stockings cover her feet and legs against the air-conditioning.

Miss Leila knows some folks came by to see her, though she doesn't know who they are.

"Thank y'all for coming," she says to the room.

Someone brought her fresh-cut flowers. Despite her clear-framed glasses, she can't see them even when held inches from her face. Several tickle her cheek. Bony fingers reach up and feel the soft yellow petals, the fuzzy brown middles.

"Daisies," she says, smiling. Her hearing is nearly gone, even when questions are shouted into her good ear. "How old are you?" No answer. "What's your age?" "I don't know." "Where were you born?" "I don't know places now."

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THE FAMILY BIBLE

Smith, Miss Leila's caregiver and youngest daughter, reaches in to an old J.B. White department store gift box and gently lifts the family Bible, small and fragile.

For years, it has rested on the commemorative bulletins from the St. David's Lutheran Church100 year anniversary -- dated 1945.

Smith opens the cover to faded lead-gray handwriting. Husband, wife, four children. The girls names are long, the way they once were in the South. The last names are all the same: Shull.

Birth dates from the past century and the one before are carefully written, as is a marriage date of 1914.

No dates for deaths are recorded, though all are gone but two.

Miss Leila's name appears just below her husband Lee's. A finger can follow the line to her birth date ... Oct. 16, 1894.

Smith leans in close to her mother. "You're 112."

Miss Leila is quiet for a few seconds.

"That's gettin' old," she says. "I know I've been here a long time."

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FLOOD OF MEMORIES

Born and raised in Lexington County, Miss Leila spent her long life within several miles of where she is now, off Platt Springs Road.

She was married for more than 45 years to the same man. And though she has now lived 47 years since his death, she never remarried.

Once an avid gardener, wife of a farmer turned saw mill owner, and mother to one son and three daughters, Miss Leila tires easily now.

She uses the arm of her wheelchair, positioned in its usual spot by the bed, to help lower her head to a pillow. Slowly, she lifts her feet and folds into a still sleep.

Miss Leila's visitors, granddaughter Ann Seigler of Irmo and Seigler's friend Crystal Danker of Lexington, continue to visit with Smith.

Danker, 60, pulls up a chair to Smith's recliner. Seigler, 60, sits in a neighboring recliner.

Smith counts out on her fingers Miss Leila's grandchildren, 15, and great-grandchildren, 27. She tries but just can't remember all the great-greats.

They talk of Miss Leila, and the memories come back: her fondness for eating fresh vegetables and cookies; her biscuits, persimmon bread, syrup cake; her "sweet and easy" temperament.

Smith recalls her mother getting a pacemaker at 104.

She thinks of the last time Miss Leila left the house, last Thanksgiving.

In time, the conversation turns to family ties, the way it so often does in the South.

Danker and Smith unwind a tangle of interwoven names as familiar now as they were when German immigrants settled Lexington County in the 1700s. Shull, Backman, Roof, Corley, Shealy, Shumpert.

Who was her momma? Was that his daddy? Who'd he marry? Where'd they live? Where are they buried?

That graveyard in the cedar grove where Daniel Nathaniel Shull is buried? Oh, that's along the same road where Smith taught her daughter to drive long before those brick homes were built around there, she recalls.

Amid stories of wandering bears, homes destroyed by fire, typhoid deaths and berry picking, the women study old photos, cracked and fading.

Men with shaggy beards and work-hard eyes. A large family posed in front of a small wood home. A teenage boy in coveralls. Miss Leila as a child with her 10 brothers and sisters, then as a young wife dressed in a floorlength skirt, standing tall behind her husband.

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CONNECTIONS

The sun shines, and the clock reads 4 p.m.

Miss Leila wakes from her nap, labors to a sit and furrows her brow. She wants her supper, and to go to bed. It's time for the visitors to go.

Danker talks of the privilege of holding Miss Leila's hand.

"I didn't want to turn loose," she says. "You want to cling to it."

It's natural to want to hold tightly to what tethers us to the past, to loved ones we miss, to memories we keep.

Not too long ago, Miss Leila asked one of her granddaughters if Jesus forgot her, Smith recalls.

"The Lord is leaving her here for a reason," Smith says. "I don't know why. We just don't know these things. I guess it's to keep us straight."

Smith makes a place on the bed to sit beside her mother. She holds her hand.

"Who are you?" the oldest woman asks.

"I'm your daughter, Lettie Mae."

"You're Lettie Mae's daughter? Bless you." "No, I'm your daughter." "And what was your name?"

"You named me Lettie Mae, of all things."

The mother's mind can't connect the memory of her daughter to the woman sitting next to her.

Smith tries one more time to bridge the expanse between past and present, looking into her mother's cloudy eyes. "I'm your daughter."

Miss Leila's face softens. She tenderly, in a near whisper, calls her daughter by her birth name, a name her daughter dropped in part years ago, the name written in the family Bible. "Lettie Mae Rebecca." She remembered.

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Reach Nalepa at (803) 771-8507.

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