CHARLESTON—Elsie DeRain has seen 100 years come and go.
The Charleston neighborhoods and streets she knew as a child have changed. Relatives and friends have passed away and she describes herself as one of the last members of her family.
Yet nothing but gratitude and serenity radiates from her as she sits in a comfortable chair spotlighted by a reading lamp in her room at the Carter-May Home.
“I don’t have any complaints,” the recent centenarian said with a smile. “I have had a good life, a comfortable life, always surrounded by people who loved me.”
On Dec. 11, DeRain celebrated her 100th birthday at Carter-May, surrounded by friends, extended family including her niece and great-nephew, and a group of jazz musicians from Charleston who came to serenade her on her big day.
While she appreciated the celebration, DeRain doesn’t make a big deal out of living for a century.
“I have a birthday every year,” she said. “This one just happened to be my 100th.”
Reaching that milestone is a significant accomplishment when you consider some of what she has gone through. Her life didn’t begin easily. DeRain describes herself as “born an invalid” in 1915. When she was born, she wasn’t breathing normally and her mother became concerned because she didn’t cry.
She had to be revived when she stopped breathing at one point, and ended up with an unknown condition that left her mostly paralyzed on her left side for the first five years of her life.
Her early childhood was largely spent inside, but she recovered enough by the age of six to attend school with the other kids in her downtown Charleston neighborhood.
Her older brother was told to take care of her at grammar school, but he soon discovered she didn’t need any help. DeRain played like any other child, did well in classes and eventually took part in other activities, such as horseback riding.
“He used to joke with me that I wouldn’t make a good dancer,” she said with a laugh. “That was about the only thing I couldn’t do well.”
DeRain went on to Memminger High School, a Charleston city school for girls formerly located on Beaufain Street. There, she excelled in classes such as typing and accounting, learned to drive and developed a strong circle of friends.
After graduation, DeRain briefly worked as a secretary at an insurance firm. Many of her friends started taking jobs with the U.S. military as its presence in Charleston increased, and she soon found employment at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, where she worked in industrial relations until her retirement. Her service, she said, enabled her to help shipyard workers in their daily lives.
“I initially took the job because it was a patriotic thing to do,” she said. “We would give the employees tests to help them find their true skills and guide them into the right job. In the end, I liked everything about working there. Those were good times.”
DeRain never married, but her life outside work was full. She spent many years taking care of an aunt who was ill and eventually moved into her former house near Hampton Park in Charleston.
She spent time with friends and pursued a lifelong love of sewing and crafting, especially making dresses for her niece and crocheting.
For many years, DeRain was also a dedicated member of the Ladies of Charity women’s group at Sacred Heart Church on King Street, where she has been a member since childhood. She no longer attends meetings but still does her best to keep up with the group’s charitable activities, and proudly displays programs and other memorabilia from when she was an active member.
She matter-of-factly acknowledges that her faith is probably what has helped her reach the century mark.
“They gave me the last rites when I was ill as a baby, and made sure I was baptized, and it must have been a good thing because here I am!” she said. “Having faith and friends around you is what leads to a good life.”
Photo by Deirdre C. Mays