A reader told me about a very old woman working at the Walmart in Muldoon, but when I found Rhoda Jackson outside the changing rooms, she looked like she was in her 60s. I asked if it was true she was 94 years old.
"That's a grievous insult," she shot back.
As I tried to babble an apology, she interrupted me, "Of course, my daughter is 73."
And so began what I hope will be a long friendship with this funny, wise, resilient woman who grew up during the Great Depression in a family of 14 children, raised her two children alone, and persists in living unsupported in a condo in East Anchorage.
Alone, but she also cares for a developmentally disabled nephew who lives in another unit.
She is unique in other ways. She traveled all over the world as a singer of classical music — she sang a line or two in her soprano to prove it. And she is African-American and a devout Jew.
"I'm a minority of a minority of a minority," she said. "I don't mind, because I don't know about the majority."
Jackson said her parents shielded her from racism as she grew up in Chicago with her siblings, across the street from the International Harvester factory where her father worked. He also was a rabbi. He raised his children without knowing there was anything different about their unique but happy world.
Harry N. Wilson had come to Chicago from New Jersey to help found a temple. He was a follower of William Crowdy, an escaped plantation slave and Civil War veteran who saw Exodus in the story of black Americans.
Their Jewish faith mixes influences. Jackson studies the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran.
She said she works at Walmart partly so she can guide the young women there, Muslims and recent Asian immigrants who scrape by on Walmart wages — good, polite people, she said.
She advises them on their families. She tells them to hold onto cultures from back home to keep their marriages strong. And she helps them save money.
She said it isn't how much you make, it's how much you spend. She learned that as a girl in Chicago in the Depression in the early 1930s. She remembers a wagon that gave away unsold produce, cabbages and such, with her family receiving extra portions to feed 14 children.
Jackson said her family was lucky. They never were put out of their home, unlike others they knew. Her father took care of their needs — as a home dentist, as a carpenter, even singing in vaudeville shows, with her mother, who died in a streetcar accident in the 1950s.
Jackson emulated him.
When her first husband was incapacitated by mental illness, she learned to be a hairdresser. She did women's hair in private homes because she couldn't afford a shop. Jackson's father would wait in the car for her, eating peanuts, as she earned her $2 fee.
She recalls ransacking her house to find a nickel to buy a loaf of bread for her two girls.
"I made it," she said. "I had a lot of good help, from my in-laws and my family. We were poor, but we helped each other."
In 1969, Jackson followed her daughter to Alaska, where her son-in-law was in the Air Force. She loved it here and still says there is no place better. Her older daughter followed too, as did other family members.
Jackson remarried and went back to school. She worked many years at Russian Jack Elementary School before retiring.
She said she doesn't need the money from Walmart, she just needs the exercise and contact with co-workers and customers. She frequently asks them to guess her age. She is fun to be around.
I heard her calm down an angry customer on the phone with one friendly sentence.
"I thought they were not going to hire me because of my age, but they took me, and I've been having a ball," she said. "It stops you from thinking bad thoughts. You get out there and think about things that are real."
One price of great old age is that the phone often rings with bad news. Jackson said she sometimes doesn't want to answer anymore.
Her second husband died long ago and her older daughter, Kathryn Allen, died of cancer a few years ago. But she still has a brother who remains healthy, living near Chicago, four years older than she is.
"We've been blessed with a long life and good genes. We don't get sick and we don't show our age," said Carolyn Monterio, Jackson's younger daughter. At 73, she still works as a registered nurse in Mobile, Alabama.
"My grandfather was just like her. I remember when he was 90, and he was in Alaska, visiting, and he had a race down the middle of the street with the kids, and he won," Monterio recalled.
Jackson said her father called her before he made that visit, saying he was coming to ask the Lord to take him, because too many friends were gone. Jackson told him not to come if he was coming to die.
But he did come, and he loved Alaska. He traveled around town on his bicycle, telling people stories going back to the 19th century.
He was at home with Jackson when he passed away, in 1980, enjoying the miracle of a new baby, who was his great-great-grandchild. He had 68 grandchildren by that time.
"He thought that was such a miracle, and watched and talked to that baby, and then finally he said it was time to go," Jackson said.
She fried some fish, because he loved it and she thought he wouldn't die as long as he could smell her cooking. He died when the meal was ready.
Jackson said she always followed her father's example through life, in faith and in healthy habits.
"It's been a beautiful, beautiful life," she said. "I thank the Lord."
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