Wilma Forrest turned one hundred years old this week. Now that’s something to celebrate.
I never forgot the first time I saw Wilma Forrest. She cast such an imposing figure walking down Main Street in Norwood. Tall and handsome, the tallest woman I’d ever seen. Men must have thought her beautiful. I was a boy then, not more than ten. A year or two later Wilma came to work in our home, as nurse to my grandmother, who lived with us after sustaining a broken hip that did not heal properly.
Wilma arrived each morning as Mother, Adelaide, my sister, and I departed for school. Mother was a teacher then. Wilma got Grandmother Bost up and dressed, prepared her breakfast, and pushed her around town in the wheelchair when the weather was nice. Adelaide shared her room with Grandmother and cared for her, with Mother, when they returned from school.
Wilma and I became great pals, in spite of my being a nuisance, or perhaps because of it. She accepted me as a project. She insisted that I not act my age, correcting my frequent rude and noisy behavior. My parents delighted in her efforts, and her successes.
Later when my father was ill, Wilma returned to help again. Daddy required dialysis. While he was at Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, their technicians taught Mother to operate the dialysis equipment. They purchased a dialysis machine and supplies and set up shop in our basement. Mother operated the equipment and Aunt Margaret, my father’s sister, and Wilma assisted. Whenever there was an emergency, such as an abnormal reading on a dial or an erratic blood pressure reading, Mother telephoned Dr. Richard Liles’ office, and he instructed her what to do, or came over to assist them in person. At that time Dr. Liles practiced medicine in Norwood. They kept Daddy alive for three years. During periods when Daddy was most ill, Wilma slept at our home, helping care for Daddy and with daily housekeeping. This was a great team of care givers.
I recall Wilma telling me about her first car. She asked Walter Boyd, her longtime boyfriend, to teach her to drive. Walter said, “Sure, but first I’m going to teach you to change a tire.” Changing a flat was a frequent requirement in those days. Walter didn’t want her out on the highway alone unable to change a flat tire.
Throughout the years Wilma and I remained close friends. She would have it no other way. She stays in touch and doesn’t allow me or others to drift apart from her memory. Wilma treasures her friendships. Today Wilma resides at Britthaven Nursing Center where she has many new friends.
I’ve mentioned only our family, but Wilma worked for dozens of families in Stanly County and elsewhere, including in California where she lived for some years following her parents’ death, helping to raise their children and care for the sick. At some point, probably after she stopped working outside her home, Wilma began to care for foster children. Someone told me recently that she has had more than twenty foster children live with her.
When my parents built our home in 1950, Wilma’s father was the plastering contractor. As a small boy I marveled at the way Mr. Greeley’s team of workmen mixed the plaster and applied it to the walls and ceilings. Those men knew their craft. Wilma told me that ours was her father’s final plastering project. By 1950, wet plastering was a thing of the past, replaced by dry walls, sheetrock over two by four studs.
Greeley Forrest and Frank Forrest, Wilma’s grandfather, were celebrated heroes in Norwood and Stanly County, something for which Wilma is abundantly proud. They successfully rescued passengers from a wrecked ferry-boat on the raging Pee Dee River at Blalock’s Ferry near Norwood. Three men drown. That was during an August flood in 1909. Little Miss Wilma was three years old at that time.
The Stanly Enterprise, forerunner of the Stanly News and Press, reported on the incident on at least two occasions, both front page, lead articles. The first time was on August 5, 1909, immediately following the incident. The second was on May 12, 1910, when it was announced that Frank Forrest and Harley Tomlinson, a companion who drown during the initial rescue attempt, were awarded the prestigious Carnegie Hero Medals. Greeley arrived on the scene in time to assist his father in a second, successful attempt to rescue passengers from the sinking craft.
Over a period of one hundred years, one has the opportunity to touch many lives. Miss Wilma has done that and more. She’s been a pillar of strength in her community, her family, and her church. And she enjoyed a beautiful friendship with Walter, whom I know she loved dearly, and he her. On Sunday, November 20, 2005, Bennettsville AME Zion Church, Norwood, NC, her home church, is celebrating with Miss Wilma her 100th birthday.
Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, North Carolina, November 20, 2005.