Alexandria resident Carletha “Nana” West turns 107

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Nana relaxes in the library at Brandywine Living after attending a Hawaiian luau and playing balloon volleyball with other residents. (Photo: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

1912. The year Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The year Woodrow Wilson was elected president. And the year Carletha “Nana” West was born.

West, who has been known as “Nana” for more than half her life, celebrated turning 107 last month. A resident of Brandywine Living on the West End, Nana spends her days watching the Redskins, socializing with other Brandywine residents and visiting with her many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Early life

Nana in Farrell, Pennsylvania, where her oldest sister Annie lived.
Nana continued to drive until she was 100 years old. (Courtesy Photo)

Nana was born on a farm in Robeson County, North Carolina on July 18, 1912. One of four daughters, she spent her teenage years in Newport News, Virginia, before moving to Washington D.C. around 1931.

A D.C. resident ever since, Nana spent her adult years working as a budget analyst for the Department of the Navy within the United States Department of Defense until she retired in the 1970s.

“I was working for the Navy during World War II,” Nana said. “You worked hard. You worked seven days a week, Saturday, Sunday, every day, because everyone was busy working for the war effort. … I remember World War II very well.”

Nana has lived to see wars, women’s suffrage, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement and countless other historic events.

She said one of the major historic events she remembered attending was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963.

“When he spoke down at the memorial, I heard that speech, ‘I Have a Dream,’” Nana said. “It was so crowded. You just tried to find a place to stand and listen to the speech.”

Family

Nana with family members. (Courtesy Photo)

Nana had two sons, Lloyd and James. After getting pregnant and having James at a young age, Nana gave him up for adoption. She gave birth to her second son, Lloyd, in 1931 and raised him in D.C.

It wasn’t until almost half a century later that James reentered Nana’s life. At 50 years old, James tracked down his brother, Lloyd, and the families were able to reunite and get to know each other later in life.

On Lloyd’s side of the family, Nana has four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. On James’ side, Nana has five grandchildren and even more great- and great-great-grandchildren.

One of Nana’s great-great-grandsons was born on her birthday. The two are exactly 95 years apart.

Nana with family and friends. (Courtesy Photo)

Lloyd’s four children all live in the DMV area and are able to visit Nana frequently. James’ children, who live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other states, also travel to Alexandria to visit Nana regularly.

Both of Nana’s sons died before her, James about 10 years ago and Lloyd four years ago. Her husband of roughly 15 years, Richard, died in the 1970s.

“That’s the hard part, I think, for her, is seeing everybody go on,” Nana’s granddaughter Tammy Dunham said. “But I’m like, then you get to see your grandkids, your great-grandkids, and now your great-great-grandkids are old enough to come visit you, and you still know who they are, they know who you are. How many people can say that their great-great-grandmother is still alive and you can go and hang out with her?”

Kim Douglas, Nana’s granddaughter-in-law, said Nana is known for being the life of the party at family gatherings.

“Up until Nana was probably 94 or 95, we all would spend New Year’s dinner at her place,” Douglas said. “And everybody went there because she used to make eggnog. It was the strongest eggnog, that I couldn’t drink personally, but the family looked forward to [it] every year. … Everybody still talks about her eggnog. She can probably tell you the recipe now. It’s like 100 percent whiskey or something crazy.”

Retirement

Carletha “Nana” West (Courtesy Photo)

After retiring from the Navy in the 70s, Nana continued to live in her southwest D.C. neighborhood, spending her time traveling, attending the Ebenezer United Methodist Church and competitively bowling. To this day, she remembers her best bowling score was 210.

“Bowling used to be her most favorite exercise to do,” Douglas said. “She was amazing at bowling. We went to see her bowl at like 90. We’re like, ‘Really?’”

Dunham said Nana remained independent well into her older years.

“She would do things with friends and come over at Christmas and parties,” Dunham said. … “Little Miss Independent, off doing her thing, taking her trips, taking herself to the hairdresser and the salon and travelling.”

Nana said she continued to drive for as long as she possibly could.

“I drove up to the last minute,” Nana said. “I drove since 1960 and never had an accident. Not once did I ever have an accident. My insurance gave me discounts for my good driving record. 1960 is when I got my first car. It was a little Chevrolet and the engine was in the back.”

Dunham said Nana was 100 years old when she stopped driving. And it wasn’t until she was 104 that Nana moved out of her condo and into a D.C. senior living home.

Nana at 47 years old. (Courtesy Photo)

“She didn’t start looking old till she was about 103,” Dunham said. “I went to go pick her up one day, and … she came out with her walker and I was like, ‘Wait, she’s old.’ And she was 103.”

Nana moved to Brandywine Living in Alexandria when it opened last fall. Dunham said she and her siblings were looking for a new place for Nana with more activities than her former facility in D.C. At Brandywine, Nana is able to go on field trips and participate in rotating daily activities, from luaus to happy hours.

Nana still maintains her financial independence at 107 years old, and she pays for the senior community completely by herself.

“She pays for herself, which is good because a lot of people don’t realize, you never know, when you get older, how long you’re gonna live, and you gotta be able to have the means to take care of yourself without relying on your family,” Douglas said. “She’s worked hard for it and saved for it. She planned for when she got older and now she’s able to live and live comfortably.”

Turning 107

For her 107th birthday, Nana had two birthday celebrations at Brandywine, one with friends and family and one with members from the Redskins, her favorite sports team.

Nana in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (Courtesy Photo)

The first party, which Nana celebrated with her relatives, friends and church community, was cookout-themed. Douglas said Nana picked out the whole menu, with special requests for fried chicken wings, baked beans and potato salad.

On her actual birthday, July 18, Brandywine hosted a special party with news crews, decorations and members from the Redskins administration, who gave Nana a personalized Redskins jersey with Nana’s name and the number 107.

“They were real nice,” Nana said of the celebrations.

While Nana has certainly reached an impressive milestone at 107 years old, Dunham said Nana has a lot of longevity in her family and that she wouldn’t be surprised if Nana made it to 108 next year. From providing commentary on Redskins games to sharing memories about old photos, Nana is still going strong, Dunham said.

“God has a plan that I don’t know nothing about,” Nana said. “He just let me live long.”

(Seniors: Empowering people with disabilities to live independently)

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