It’s not every day someone turns 105 - and this Joliet resident celebrated in style

Granddaughter said Gertrude Chandler also beat COVID-19

On Friday, Gertrude “BigMamma” Chandler, 105, of Joliet stood, with help, for the first time since she contracted COVID-19 in February – and even tried to take a few steps.

But Chandler’s “a firecracker,” her granddaughter Trinita Stevenson of Joliet said.

“She doesn’t understand she’s got to get the basics,” Stephenson said, adding that Chandler soon will start physical therapy twice a week.

Chandler, who celebrated her 105th birthday Sept. 5, was not expected to survive COVID-19. She was sent home after several days in the hospital and placed on hospice, Stevenson said.

Stevenson’s sister, Shirley Smith of Joliet, is Chandler’s caretaker. Smith said Chandler had stopped eating or drinking while in the hospital. But that changed once she came home.

“I go in her room the next day and she’s sitting and combing her hair and eating everything in sight,” Smith said.

Smith said Chandler asked for chicken and quoted Chandler’s favorite saying, “If it’s not fried, it’s not done.”

Stevenson felt Chandler simply didn’t like hospital food.

“She’s very stubborn,” Stevenson said.

Some of Chandler’s favorites foods include caramel cake, chicken from KFC and Popeyes, and child-size hamburgers from McDonald’s. But Chandler also is fond of garlic and onions, eating the latter raw, as one might eat an apple, Stevenson said.

“She always ate what she wanted to,” Stevenson said. “She’s just always been very healthy.”

Stevenson said Chandler is meticulous about her hygiene, uses shea butter to promote healthy skin and likes to dress well.

“She liked to ‘go to town’ – go downtown – and buy fancy church dresses and church hats,” Stevenson said. “She loved her suits and tailored clothes and heels. Over the years, they [the heels] did get shorter and shorter.”

Chandler was a member of Refuse Mission United Holy Church in Joliet until she turned 99 and “started to slow down,” Stevenson said.

“She was the mother of the church,” Stevenson said.

But Chandler still reads her Bible every morning – aloud – and can quote parts of Psalm 23 and one of her favorite Bible verses: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart.” Proverbs 3:5.

“Why do you think you’re still alive?” Stevenson asked Chandler.

“Because of the Lord,” Chandler said.

Then Chandler chastised Stevenson for not learning her Bible verse. Stevenson countered by asking Chandler to recite some more so she could learn them. Stevenson said Chandler always insisted children show respect to adults and didn’t mince words when it came time to correct them.

“And she’d tell you a scripture to put you wherever you needed to be,” Stevenson said.

Chandler was born in Arkansas, but neither Stevenson nor Smith have any details about her childhood. Stevenson’s late mother, Josephine, was named for Chandler’s mother, and Chandler was married twice: to the late Jodie Nevels and to the late Ollie Chandler.

Josephine was BigMamma’s only child, Stevenson said. BigMamma also has eight grandchildren 26 great-grandchildren and 36 great-great-grandchildren.

Stevenson said that after Ollie died, BigMamma returned to Arkansas for a time. BigMamma also traveled as a migrant worker, picking cherries and cotton and “doing the orange season,” Stevenson said.

BigMamma lived with her daughter Josephine until Josephine died in 2003 from thyroid cancer, Stevenson said. But when Josephine was still healthy, she and BigMamma, who then was in her 80s, worked as teacher’s aides at Trinity Services in New Lenox, Stevenson said.

“We made a promise to my mom that we would take care of her [BigMamma] and not put her in a nursing home,” Stevenson said. “And that’s why we’re still taking care of her here.”

Stevenson said BigMamma insists on celebrating her birthday on her birthday. Her favorite presents are flowers, money, wigs and jewelry, Stevenson said.

These days, BigMamma doesn’t rise until about 11 a.m. Her daily routine includes reading her Bible aloud, Stevenson said, and reading The Herald-News. The rest of the day is low-key.

“I just sit and look,” BigMamma said.

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.