Those who know Dimple Mae “Dee” Ridley understand why she calls herself a “tough old bird.”
The Gainesville-based centenarian has lived through the Great Depression, the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1952 polio epidemic and the 1957-1958 influenza pandemic.
Ridley’s daughter and only child, Joye Fuller, said her mother has also survived breast cancer, three incidents of gangrene, eight major surgeries and three significant vehicle accidents.
“She didn’t have an easy upbringing, but she always made the most of whatever,” Fuller said. “She was determined to make it on her own and support me.”
On Jan. 9, Ridley celebrated her 105th birthday.
Looking from a window, Ridley watched as friends, families and even strangers honked their horns and greeted her from the front lawn. Fuller said around 35 of Ridley’s friends who used to work at the old Brenau Academy stood in her yard and sang happy birthday.
“She’s just a real jewel,” Melissa Rhamstine, friend of Ridley, said.
Over her 105 years of life, Ridley has lived in Oakwood, Atlanta, West Point, several cities in Alabama and has called Gainesville home for the past 21 years.
Fuller said her mother was born in Bon Air, Alabama and grew up in an impoverished household with six brothers and sisters. She said Ridley quit school after the sixth grade to help support her family.
After Ridley’s divorce of her former husband, Fuller said her mother paid her way through business school to earn an education.
“We had nothing, and she took care of me,” Fuller said.
To keep them fed and have a roof over their heads, Ridley adopted an entrepreneural spirit, juggling various jobs and even creating her own. Fuller said her mother worked in the stock market, an insurance agency and started a taxi service in the late ‘40s after purchasing a car for $25.
“I think it was the first taxi cab owned by a woman,” Fuller said. “We had no money, so she was tight in every way, so she could take care of me.”
Growing flowers and friendships
Those who drive past the corner of Dixon and Holly Drive will be hard-pressed not to see flowers, vegetables, fruit and other plants that have engulfed Ridley’s property.
Rhamstine said the 105-year-old’s driveway has even been touched by her green thumb, covered in around 50 recycled cans used as pots for plants.
“She hoards flowers,” Rhamstine said. “Until 4 years ago, she had a sign in her driveway and would sell cuttings.”
Rhamstine, who has been friends with Ridley for the past seven years, said they both met at the victory garden at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville. At the time, Ridley was invited by the Hall County Master Gardeners to speak about how she grew food during the Great Depression.
“For me personally, I love her love of gardening,” Rhamstine said. “That’s what drew us together. Also, she loves people.”
For the past 40 years, Fuller said her mother has baked Italian lace cookies, which are thin, delicate and cooked in a press, similar to a waffle maker.
Ridley also enjoys making her special “yum yum cornbread” and crafting valentines with handmade chocolates for people.
“She’s just made her whole life about motivating others and being positive,” Fuller said.
The centenarian's daughter attributes Ridley’s longevity to her healthy eating habits, active lifestyle and good dental hygiene. Even at 105 years old, Fuller said her mother walks on her own, exercises with a bicycle pedal contraption and still maintains all of her teeth.
“Growing up, we didn’t eat salt or much meat,” Fuller said. “She didn’t think it was good for you. She thought plant-based food was what we should have. Most of the time we had our own garden.”
For the past year, Fuller has helped look after her mother, who was recently put on hospice care. Not wanting to put her health at risk, Ridley hasn’t left her home since the pandemic. However, Fuller said the 105-year-old’s positive spirit and humor haven’t been dampened.
If Ridley could give one piece of advice, the centenarian said she would tell others to “just keep moving and loving people.”