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A Tribute To Lilllian, Celebrating 100 Years Of Life

Let me tell you a story about Lillian Clarke Henry, Lilliana just turned 100 year old woman, who has played the cards dealt her at birth with same fierce determination to win, as she does at the bridge table where she bids 6 No Trump, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds of making such an ambitious contract.

In 2010 I started playing bridge at the club where I met Lillian, who over the course of the last two years, has shared with me, as she calls them, chapters of her life.

She and her four siblings were born in a little town in Alabama to a mother who was black, and a father who was white. This interracial union would make the cards Miss Lilly had to play in her game of life as tentative as the no trump bid with not quite enough points to succeed.

Lillian figured out when she was about ten years old, that anything important was not discussed by her parents until the children were asleep, so she stayed awake, only to hear her mother and father arguing about what the Ku Klux Klan members were threatening to do to her family -- either get out of town, or be killed. Her mother demanded that they go, her father would have none of it, and wanted to stand his ground, daring the Klan to harm his family. Lillian's strong willed mother won, and her father moved them to his brother's farm, located in another Alabama town. Lillian won, she was alive, but she lost her father -- he did not stay, but returned to their home, and she never saw him again.

Lillian loved the school in her uncle's town because it had so much more to offer than the one she left, and graduated at the top of her class. The story, at this point, has missing chapters because playing bridge took precedent over Miss Lilly's retrospective of her life. What did she do after graduating? How did she meet and when did she marry her first husband, and why was she separated from her two young sons, with whom she thankfully was reunited? How on earth did she and her husband become the first black taxi owners? When was she divorced, and when did she remarry, and yet again face the heartbreaking breaking apart?

And so, Miss Lilly was faced with the fact that she had to, as her mother urged her to do when sweeping, bear down, to make a life for herself and her sons, George and Roy. She found a job working for a woman, which lasted until Miss Lilly was ready to retire, saved and bought the house she still lives in with her son Roy, his wife Bernice, and Duke, the dog.

Bridge was her new job after she retired, and she began to play with the same bear down attitude that has served her so well. She says she never did bear down when sweeping, perhaps because sweeping offered no payoff. Miss Lilly has survived bridge partners, and also survived, driving home from a bridge game, on the day the jury decided the police officers who had beaten Rodney King, (even though pictures clearly showed a bunch of out of control thugs,) were not guilty, a frightening experience. Then eighty year old Lillian, once again, just like when she was ten years old, was indicted and convicted because of her color! Only this time, the street full of angry blacks saw someone, a light skinned woman whom they assumed was white, would be the target to get revenge for the verdict.

She was able to convince them that this was her neighborhood, that she was indeed black, and that she was on her way home in this neighborhood. The family,a after hearing about Miss Lilly being the wrong color, at the wrong place, and at the absolutely wrong time, made the decision that she would drive no more. They assured her that they would take over the driving, so she is chauffeured to the bridge club by one of her family.

On her 99th birthday celebration at the bridge club, in her inimitably upbeat voice, she told us how lucky she was to have such a wonderful family of relatives and friends, and was soldiering on to 100.

This year, on a breezy, brilliantly sunny May afternoon, Lillian Clarke Henry walked through the gate into her granddaughter's back garden where relatives and friends were waiting , and Frank Sinatra was singing a beautiful love song that surely was meant just for her, on her 100th birthday.

And yes, Miss Lilly is still playing the cards dealt her, when she was born 100 years ago, just like she's always played her cards-- with the tenacity to win. She is the face of the legions of woman who have that overwhelming fortitude needed to succeed, even though their cards say the odds of winning are almost none. Thank you!

by Lucille Stivers