Walking into the den with a little help from daughter Joyce Lewallen and daughter-in-law Mary Sue Whitmire, the keyboard cover is lifted and Nona Whitmire starts to warm up the ivory keys on her upright piano.
Without the assistance of sheet music, Nona plays from memory, which is impressive considering she will turn 106 on Monday.
Saturday, Nona’s family and friends gathered at the Food Factory in Cornelia to celebrate with more than 50 relatives, including her two children, four grandchildren,11 great-grandchildren, eight great-great-grandchildren and their significant others.
The oldest living member of Airline Baptist Church had only a few suggestions to live a long happy life.
“Working hard and eating regular, and reading the Bible every day,” Nona said with a nod.
One of the few times she uses her wheelchair, Nona makes it to church every Sunday that she can, though now attends Sunday school classes rather than teach them.
“We have people at church that’ll come up and say, ‘Ms. Nona I didn’t want to come today, I felt bad, or I thought I just wanted to sleep in today, and then I think about you, and if she can go I can go,’” said Mary Sue, who is married to Nona’s son, Neil. “She’s a real inspiration at church.”
Born and raised on 48 acres of land in Habersham County, Nona was one of seven children.
“She picked cotton and worked hard for everything they had,” said Lewallen, remembering the stories of her mother’s youth.
“I made 30 biscuits every morning for our breakfast, and there were seven kids and mama and daddy,” Nona said, recalling standing on an apple box at age 10.
With more than a century of memories, Nona said it’s hard to remember them all. She recalled the day her family added a new mode of transportation, significantly different than the pine straw covered floor of the wagon they used to travel to church every Sunday.
“First car we ever had, we bought it with four bales of cotton, and paid for it with the money we got for the cotton, brand new Ford,” said Nona, who was happy to drive anyone who needed a ride.
“From the time she was teenager until she was 92, she drove a lot. She never got a ticket, and she never had an accident,” said Mary Sue Whitmire.
Against her father’s wishes in her early 20s, Nona moved in with her cousins to join the flood of people relocating to Gainesville for jobs at the cotton mill. It was there she met JT Whitmire, and they were married on Aug. 25, 1935.
“Everything they had got blown away in the tornado in 1936,” said Lewallen. “They had just gotten everything set up and then they had to start all over.”
With only minor injuries, Nona and JT survived one of the nation’s deadliest tornados, but their house on Washington Street did not.
After working at the cotton mill, Nona worked in the Airline school cafeteria, spent time growing a garden and raising chickens, was a private duty nurse at the hospital and for a few years ran a cloth shop out of her house.
“She still knows how things ought to be, and she’s still interested in everything,” Mary Sue said.
“She’s been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things,” said Lewallen, who said she was glad to have Nona join them as they traveled the country in their motor home.
Nona has collected souvenir mugs from every trip, all proudly displayed in a glass cabinet in the living room.
“I’ve been everywhere, every state in the union just about,” Nona said. Her favorite sights were the big trees of the redwood forest.
Despite losing loved ones, including her husband in 1968, Nona is notorious for staying positive and not letting anything get to her.
“The wonderful thing about (Nona) is that she’s lost so many close friends, but she always seems to make more.” Mary Sue said. “God always sends another good friend.”
Her advice to future generations?
“Read the Bible every day and pray to the Lord for forgiveness. Let the Lord lead you, and show you how to live,” she said.
Still a fan of a sense of humor and a smile, she ended with, “That’s all I can remember. I think that’s enough.”