Lessie Brown Lessie Brown
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Update: Lessie Brown died Jan. 8, 2019, at her daughters' home in Cleveland Heights. She was 114 years old. 

Lessie Brown is asleep the first time I meet her. 

But that’s not uncommon for the 113-year-old, who is the oldest known person in the United States. She turns 114 Sept. 22.

She sleeps most of the time now, in her bed with purple paisley pattern sheets tucked under a beige blanket. Her hair is up in a black shower cap, and I can almost see a soft smile on her face. 

“Hi, momma,” whispers Lessie’s 90-year-old daughter, Vivian Hatcher. “How you doin,’ momma?” Vivian holds her mother’s hand while she talks to the nurse aide. “Did she eat OK?” 

The aide tells her that Lessie almost finished an entire Ensure shake and even drank some water. “Good job, mama,” Vivian sighs while holding her mother’s hand between hers. 

I can hear the relief in her voice. 

Lessie’s room is covered in trinkets, photos and gifts from her family. Three giant cards hang on the wall opposite her bed that say, “Happy Birthday” and “We love you, Big Mommy” — a nickname she has earned over her years of treating everyone like family. 

A photo of Lessie and her husband, Robert Brown, taken before he died in 1991 sits atop her bookshelf alongside photos of her grandkids, children and siblings.

Just a few hours into my first visit, I feel like I’ve known Lessie forever. 

Verline and Vivian sit on the couch next to me reminiscing about playing dress-up in their mother’s clothes as if I had been there with them. Lessie’s great-granddaughter Angela Dow recalls a paper she wrote in college that focused on what Lessie remembered of major historical moments — Lessie was 8 years old when the Titanic sank, 59 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and 64 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.

Even after four visits, Lessie was never able to speak to me. And yet her life’s story spills out from those around her, overflowing with tales of love, patience and faith. 

It’s hard to ask questions as the room roars with laughter and reminiscing. Grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren tell stories they haven’t thought about in years: putting plays on at Lessie’s house, watching her butcher chickens and receiving her special birthday baked goods. 

As each person adds something else, Lessie’s life seems exponentially greater than her 113 years.  

{ Early Life }

The seventh of 12 children, Lessie was born in Stockbridge, Georgia, in 1904 to Henry and Martha Barnes. Martha’s parents had been slaves in the same area. 

Lessie attended school until eighth grade, when she decided to work full time on her parents’ farm. There she learned how to raise hogs, chickens and other animals.  

When Lessie was 16, the family moved north to Cleveland. Her older siblings left first to find work and a place to live before her mother, father and a few of her siblings joined them. Eventually Lessie and her sister Lilly made the trip together. The country was still deeply segregated. African-Americans were pressured to stay in the South and work on farms, not move to the North to start a new life. So her father was forced to travel at night. The rest came in a small group, leaving behind anything they couldn’t carry.

“They had to come up just a few at a time,” says Verline.

After settling on the East Side for three years, Lessie’s parents longed for days outside the city where they could have a garden and raise animals, so they moved to Twinsburg.

Lessie and Lily stayed with their older sister, Lottie, to be closer to their job at Mount Sinai Hospital’s kitchen and laundry room in University Circle. At a Halloween party in 1924, someone caught Lessie’s eye: a tall man with deep, dark eyes and a perfectly square face that made a dimple on his chin when he cracked a smile. 

Robert Brown stole her heart immediately. He and Lessie weren’t dating for more than two months before they were engaged. They married in his family home in 1925. 

“They were married for 66 years before he passed,” Verline says. 

Their first child, Robert Jr., was born in 1926. They lived in an apartment on Cedar Road in the Fairfax neighborhood even as the family grew to five children. Robert worked various factory jobs and Lessie traveled downtown each day to the Statler Hotel and another office on Carnegie Avenue to clean rooms. 

“She worked a lot,” Verline says. “Sometimes my sister and I would walk to work with her just to spend more time with her.”

Around 1940, Robert and Lessie moved to Bedford. Their kids were getting older — the youngest, Delorie, was around 8. So Robert built a small white, one-story, three-bedroom home with his own hands. 

It hosted some of their most precious times, from family holidays gathered around the table to Lessie meeting her first grandchild.

One of Verline’s favorite memories is helping her mother in the kitchen. “My mother was an amazing cook,” she says with a smile. “I used to try and help her when I was young, but my favorite part was when the food was done and we could eat.” 

Lessie was known for her yeast rolls, sweet potato cobbler, blackberry pie and green beans and ham. 

“Even though she had so many grandkids and great-grandkids, she still remembered everyone’s favorite dessert for their birthday,” Lessie’s grandson Ronald Wilson says. “My favorite was vanilla cake with chocolate icing. I got that every year.”

But nothing compared to her fried chicken. She raised chickens in the backyard for eggs and the occasional dinner. “Whenever mother wanted fried chicken, my dad would tell her, ‘OK Lessie, but just one chicken,’ ” Verline says holding back a giggle. “I don’t know where he thought those four drumsticks came from, but he never argued.”

{ Big Mommy }

Everyone knows Lessie as “Big Mommy.” 

She often opened her home to family, friends and others who needed a place to stay. Verline remembers when her younger brother, Donald, brought home his 13-year-old friend Ernie Wilson. 

“He didn’t have any family left and he needed a place to stay,” Verline says. “She had him over a few times for dinner and before we knew it, he was there for years.”

Ernie stayed with the Browns until he enlisted in the Army. While overseas, he even sent part of his check home to Lessie to help with her bills. 

“She really did become his momma,” Verline says. “That’s how she was with everyone.” 

While many knew her place as a second home, Lessie found comfort in church. She rarely missed a Sunday during her 70 years as a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church on Quincy Avenue and East 79th Street. A dedicated volunteer, Lessie helped with day care, food pantries and anything the church needed.

David A. Cobb Jr. joined the church as the senior pastor when Lessie was 102 years old. “When I first met her, I though she was around 60 years old,” Cobb says. “When I found out how old she really was, I couldn’t believe it.” 

Lessie only slowed down about four years ago. She started staying home on Sundays and reading the Bible in her room rather than going out. 

“She may have not been present, but her faith never wavered,” Cobb says.

Until just a few years ago, she still knelt next to her bed for prayers. “She still asks me to read her the Lord’s Prayer sometimes,” Verline smiles. “She will even say it along with me.”

{ Life of Purpose }

Some friends and family members claim that Lessie’s long life is owed to eating sweet potatoes — which are known for fighting off aging, maintaining bone health and more — every single day until she was about 111 years old. 

But Lessie believes that her age and all of its hardships — she’s outlived two of her children and all of her siblings — is about more than what she ate.

“Mother believes that God has a reason for keeping her here so long,” Vivian says. “She doesn’t think there’s any secret, just that it is her purpose to be here.”

When Lessie turned 112 in 2016, she received a letter from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. “That meant a lot to her because in the era that she grew up in, she never thought she’d be able to vote for a black president,” Ronald says. “But she did — twice. And he even sent her a letter on her birthday.”

Her family says there may be another lesson— Lessie’s approach to life. She is always patient, never drinks and used to exercise multiple times each day. For years, she racked up mile after mile on a stationary bike. Other days, she would walk up and down the long hallway of her building. 

Her grandson Ronald remembers her sitting in the living room of her apartment doing exercises. 

“She would sit here and kick her feet up and down, then raise her arms up above her head,” Ronald says. “She would never sit still.”

But now, since she stays in bed most of the time, she does most of her exercise with her faith. She wakes up enough once every week or so to talk. Sometimes she even sings. The aide comes every morning at 11 a.m. to wake Lessie and feed her. In the evening, she returns to prepare Lessie for bed.

The night before my first visit, Verline told me Lessie was up singing her favorite hymn, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” Verline sings it to herself:

I am weak but thou art strong
Jesus keep me from all wrong
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk with thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea

I wish I could have seen her awake, seen her talking or even singing. I wish I could have gotten to know her through her own stories and thoughts. 

When my feeble life is o’er
Time for me will be no more
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To thy kingdom’s shore, to thy shore
Just a closer walk with thee

But as I watch Vivian hold her mother’s hand and gently kiss her forehead before we leave her room — I realize that I did.  

Sweet Potato Cobbler

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
3 1/2 cups of water
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, cubed

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening
5 to 6 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons butter, melted
4 teaspoons sugar

In a saucepan, cook sweet potatoes in water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid. Layer potatoes in a greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish and add reserved liquid. Combine sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and sprinkle over potatoes. Spread butter throughout. For the pastry, combine flour and salt and add in shortening until the mixture starts to look like crumbs. Slowly add water, stirring into a ball with a fork. On a floured surface, roll pastry into a rectangle the same size as the baking dish. Place over potatoes, cut holes in pastry, brush with butter and sprinkle sugar on top. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown.

Lessons Learned

Some of Lessie Brown’s three living children, 25 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and 27 great-great-grandchildren tell us what they learned from her life.

"She was always patient, which I didn’t get from her, but I try. She had kids constantly coming in and out of her house — some that weren’t even hers. But I don’t think I ever even saw her yell or get angry. She always treated everyone with kindness and compassion.” — daughter Vivian Hatcher, 90 

"Mother was able to deal with a lot. No matter what she had going on, she was strong. When my dad died, she was the rock of our family. I know it was hard for her, but she didn’t break down because she knew we needed her to be there. Now that is how I try to be for my family.” — daughter Verline Wilson, 89

"She is such a Godly woman. She inspired all of her kids and grandkids, including me, how to pray. She even prayed on her knees at the side of her bed until she could couldn’t kneel anymore.” — granddaughter Gayle Chambers, 65

"Big Mommy had a lot of people to keep up with — we’re a big family. But she always knew how to make each person feel special. Whether it’s remembering your favorite cake or food, she taught me that those little things matter to people.” — grandson Ronald Wilson, 59

"She was my best friend. She never judged me or anyone else. I could run to her house when I was mad at my parents or just had something going on and I knew she’d always be there with open arms for me.” — great-granddaughter Angela Dow, 46

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