When Louise Gray was young, she was so sheltered, she didn’t even dream of what was beyond her father’s farm, whom she might sing for one day, or the parties and people that didn’t exist in Glassboro.
And she also never dreamed of making it to 100, Gray said on her birthday Sunday, to the dozens gathered on Zoom for her virtual party. Her granddaughter, Nikkō Gray, the only child of her only child, had spent months planning the festivities, pulling together a multigenerational circle of loved ones from here, the Midwest, the Netherlands, and Spain. A guest Zooming from North Dakota wished her many birthdays to come.
“Thank you,” Gray said from her Cobbs Creek dining room, sitting in front of the blush- and champagne-colored balloons and streamers that her granddaughter arranged for her big day. “I’m looking forward to 200.”
The first 100 years have been something. She’s worked for the government, raised a singer-songwriter musician, and traveled extensively. Yet, after a century’s worth of stories to tell, she still doesn’t think she’s changed that much from her teenage years, back when she used to pick string beans from rows that appeared never-ending. In those days, she loved being around people, keeping busy, and having her fun. By all accounts, that’s still the case.
Before the impacts of the virus kept her inside, she was still riding buses and trains on her own, still going to pay bills in person, still running her own errands, still singing in the church choir, still going to brunch after services, and still taking trips on her own to New York just to shop — all without the use of a cane. Even now, Gray makes sure she’s well stocked with her food obsession: Cheetos.
“I think she has an internal motor that has to keep going,” said her granddaughter, 35, who described her “Grammie” as a fiery Sagittarius who doesn’t give a heads-up when she wants to go somewhere. She is a woman who defies convention.
In Gray’s circles, she’s known for her impeccable sense of style and her undying appreciation for fun times and glamour. Her accent, which renders darling with no r and pronounces again like a gain, only amplifies her classy nature. Sheila Warner, a dear friend of Gray’s, recalls meeting her in the late 1980s and being in awe. Here was a woman who traveled, reveled in the good life, and was still finding younger friends while pushing 70.
“I was just fascinated and curious about her whole lifestyle and what it was that just kept her vibrant,” Warner, of Kingsessing, remembered. “I was 40 or somewhere around there. And she was a good 30 years older than I was, and she wore heels higher than I did. I was wearing one-inch heels; she was wearing three-inch heels.”
In fact, despite her granddaughter pleading against it, Gray stood on her chair during the Zoom party to show off her new shoes.
Gray, while wearing a midnight blue, sequined caped evening gown, gazed at the Zoom screen with dozens of smiling faces, including her remaining siblings, Joseph Abraham, 98, and Norman Abraham, who turns 97 this month. Her granddaughter created a tribute video showing her eating and shopping for Cheetos (crunchy, not hot) in certain locations, including once in the hospital. Norman shared that he was inspired to have a sister who’s still “so full of pepper.” Joseph said the occasion left him speechless, but when he found his words, he shared a poem, which bore this line of advice: “Find happiness in yourself.”
“I like that,” Gray said. “I find happiness in myself all the time.”
‘I was fresh’
Born Martha Emma Louise Abraham in Philadelphia, Gray was raised primarily in Glassboro, N.J., by her father and grandmother, with her four siblings. Norman recalls how they raised corn, watermelons, cantaloupes, and beans and kept chickens plus a horse. When Gray was 16, she went to New York City to live with her mother and finish high school but eventually returned to South Jersey, picking up work on an assembly line in a Swedesboro factory.
She met her husband when she was 20. She knew that her father wouldn’t allow her to kindly receive gentlemen callers, so she’d tell men to meet her at her aunt’s house across the street. That’s where she directed both a gentleman she’d met on the street during her lunch hour and another she worked with at the factory. She just didn’t know they were brothers until they both showed up at the same time.
“So my husband said to me, ‘You can’t go through the family.’ I said — I was fresh!— I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.
“I wasn’t harsh harsh, but it was nice and nasty. He said I have to make a choice — ‘my brother or me,’ ” she remembered. “I said, ‘How about you?’ ”
She married James Gray in July 1941 and described the marriage and her husband as beautiful. His laugh, she said, could light up a room. When James died in 1945 in World War II, Gray was despondent.
“When the guy came to tell me my husband was killed, all I wanted to do was kill myself. I really tried,” explained Gray, who added that her mother and stepfather kept close watch on her. “I was so hurt. I just saw him one time after he went into service, that one time.”
As she recovered, she focused on her work. She handled paperwork as a clerk at Signal Corps, a job that eventually brought her back to Philly. She’s long been an independent woman, giving birth to her daughter in 1948 and raising her by herself.
“I didn’t do any other things that would tie me down as you can see. I’m free,” said Gray, who never remarried.
“I call the punches. I call the shots,” Gray explained, speaking of interactions with men, but also in her life in general. “When it comes to this little body, it’s me. No, you can’t have it. But I might give it to you.”
‘I live as I go along’
Gray, a soprano who specializes in African American spirituals, saw her daughter’s talent for song early. Maureen Gray started singing at 3 and debuted at Carnegie Hall at 5. The story goes that when Maureen was 12, she walked into a record store at 60th and Market and told its co-owner, Johnny Madara, that she could sing. When Madara witnessed her prove it, he started writing songs for her straightaway. Quickly, Gray’s child prodigy became a Philly doo-wop star, recording classics like “Today’s the Day” and “Dancing the Strand.”
Maureen eventually grew into a hippie, multi-instrumentalist who worked with the likes of David Bowie, Bob Marley, and John Lennon. The singer-songwriter relocated to Europe in the ’60s. In the ’70s, Gray followed her, visiting her daughter in Amsterdam and London off and on for months at a time.
“You know, most persons don’t want your mom hanging around. But my daughter was never like that to me,” Gray recalled. She’d accompany her on rehearsals and shows, observing Maureen at work, meeting celebrities along the way. “Wherever she went was where I was going.”
Gray’s granddaughter, a musician in her own right, believes her mom allowed that because her grandmother was a cool mom. Maureen, who died of a rare cancer of the bile duct, had been a cool mom, too, said her daughter.
“We’re so similar and so different,” said Nikkō Gray, who moved to Philadelphia in 2018 to care for her grandmother. She had watched her grandmother and mother have intense arguments, then would see them show unbounded affection to each other afterward. “There’s so much love that we’re not unsure about, and I think that’s the glue that holds us together.”
Along with a Zoom celebration, Nikkō Gray also worked on a ride-by parade outside Gray’s church, Mt. Carmel Baptist, where her grandmother is the longest-serving member of its choir. The morning welcomed a downpour, but even so, loved ones pulled up to salute her in their cars. The elder Gray sat under a tent in front of the church, with her brother Norman by her side serenading her with hymns like “Blessed Assurance.”
The celebrations, Gray said after the parade, made her feel absolutely magnificent.
What will her 101st year be like? Gray isn’t quite sure:
“I don’t like plans for my future.”