Anna’s birthday is coming and it’s a big one. On July 12, she’ll be 105 years old.
On Saturday, four generations of family will celebrate at Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Anna will get hugs and kisses. There will be balloons and Bingo.
But no one will sing happy birthday.
Siu-Yueh “Anna” Liu was born in China in 1911. She is deaf. And she doesn’t understand English.
Yet somehow it doesn’t matter. Anna’s smile is like sunshine, the touch of her fingers on your arm is warm and kind.
Sit awhile and she’ll tell pieces of her story: how she lived through a war, worked as a nurse, gave birth to six children in 10 years and escaped to freedom not once but twice. And like many loving grandmas, she’ll give advice on how to live a good life.
To “talk” to Anna, you’ll need her 72-year-old daughter, Joan Ma of Niskayuna, and a child’s sketching board and stylus.
On a recent afternoon, Anna was excited because a Gazette reporter was visiting, and the three of us huddled together in a quiet room.
Anna’s shirt is purple, her feet are clad in bright red embroidered Chinese slippers. Her skin is remarkably smooth.
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” I begin.
Joan scribbles my greeting in Chinese onto the board and shows it to her mother, who silently reads the characters.
Clasping her hands together as if in prayer, Anna smiles and bows to me from her wheelchair. And I do the same.
“How are you feeling today?” I ask.
This time, Anna looks at her daughter and in a strong voice, speaks in Mandarin. Joan looks at me and translates.
“Very good,” Anna says.
When she was 98, Anna had brain surgery, Joan tells me. At 103, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. Both times, she recovered and returned to the nursing home within days. Her hearing faded away about six years ago.
Between a reporter’s questions, Joan tries to fill in her mother’s story. Because Anna has lived more than a century, more than half of it on another side of the globe, details are sketchy.
In 1937, Japan invaded China, and there were eight years of war. It was the largest Asian war in the 20th century, with 10 million to 25 million civilian deaths.
“When the alarm goes off, everyone runs. Run and hide. Shells flying everywhere,” Joan says.
Anna, who was in her late 20s, was hit by a bomb fragment.
“A piece got stuck in her head,” says Joan.
The wound bled heavily but the shard was removed, and Anna survived.
In 1949, when Mao Zedong and the Communists took over, Anna, her children, and her husband, who worked for the government, fled to Taiwan by boat.
“They could not take anything with them. The only thing she brought was her five kids,” Joan says.
When she lived in China, Anna was a head nurse in a big hospital in Nanking. She spoke a little English back then, with American doctors, but old age has erased any second language.
I press on with my questions, as Anna watches and waits for Joan to write on the board.
“What was your most important accomplishment?”
“Being a nurse,” Anna says.
“What was the most fun?”
“Being a nurse,” she answers.
“Were you popular with the boys?”
Anna nods her head vigorously and grins.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says.
“She loved to take care of patients,” Joan explains. “She loves people. She loves to help people.”
In the early 1970s, during China’s Cultural Revolution, one by one, the family left Taiwan.
“We escaped,” says Joan. “At that time, coming to America is a dream. Everyone wants to come to America.”
Joan became a nurse, and Joan’s daughter is now a nurse.
Anna’s four other children, ages 66 to 76, live in Maryland and California. She has 14 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Anna’s husband died when she was 72. A daughter, Julia, died in 2004, two days before Anna’s 92nd birthday.
Every year since Anna’s 99th birthday, the family comes to town to celebrate.
“I have 20 to 30 people stay at my house every year,” Joan says. “Everybody sleeping everywhere.”
Anna holds Joan’s arm and looks at her lovingly.
She was a good mother to her three daughters and three sons, Joan says.
“She made all of our clothes, all of our shoes. We wore handmade shoes, not like these shoes.”
Anna also loved to knit, crochet and play Mahjong.
Joan, who suffered with asthma as a child, remembers her mother sleeping in the same bed with her to keep watch on her breathing.
“She was patting my back at night,” Joan says.
Now the tables are turned, and Joan takes care of Anna.
“I cut her hair, I do her nails,” Joan says.
No one in the nursing home speaks Mandarin, so if her mom has a health problem, Joan rushes to her side and translates.
“But everybody loves her in here. It’s because of her smile,” Joan says.
The reporter has a few more questions. Anna patiently waits for Joan to write on the board.
“What is your secret to reaching the age of 105?”
“Be happy,” Anna says.
Joan says her mother, a devout Christian, “doesn’t put hate or worry in her head,” and used to read the Bible every day.
“What’s your favorite Bible verse?”
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Then she falls silent. “I can’t remember.” She pauses for a minute and then continues. “God has been watching me through my life. God gives me health and takes care of me.”
“One more question,” I say. “What’s your advice on how to live a good life?
“Don’t be a piggie eater,” Anna says. “Believe in God and pray often. Don’t argue. Let go of everything.”
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, [email protected] or on Twitter @bjorngazette.