By Arlene McKanic
One of the first things you notice about Grace Harbison is her skin, which is the softly glowing kind one usually sees in photos taken of well-born ladies at the turn of the last century.
Grace admits her lovely complexion was helped by the facial creams made by a company that she asks remain nameless, but was allegedly a favorite of her contemporary, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Grace sat in a room at the Fresh Meadows Nursing Home with perfectly coiffed white hair, and her fingernails manicured and painted pearl pink. Her dignified beauty is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the day before she has just celebrated her 100th birthday.
Grace’s grandmother didn’t want her daughter to marry because she was only 16, and the young woman, on the verge of eloping, had to tell the priest that she was 18 in order to wed.
Grace was born May 14, 1902, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her mother was a housewife and her father an ironworker who died in an accident in 1918.
Grace’s mother wanted to name her Elizabeth but was dissuaded — it was too easy to turn into a nickname, and Grace was a popular name in the family. Raised Roman Catholic, Grace lived in Greenpoint till she was 12 or 13, when her family moved to Elmhurst.
“There was no subway, the only transportation was the Graham Avenue trolley car to Brooklyn and the Long Island Railroad,” she recalled. “It was all farms and hills.”
She had four brothers, one who died when he was 5. Another girl was born after Grace, but died in infancy. As the only girl, Grace was shy and not allowed to do much. Her brothers were called up during World War I, but the Armistice was signed before they had to go. After her father’s death, her bachelor uncle moved in with the family. “He was lovely,” she remembered, her soft voice punctuated often by a still girlish giggle.
She married in 1926 and she and her husband Thomas were together for 53 years till he died of heart failure “a couple of days short of his 79th birthday,” Grace remembered. They couldn’t have kids, and she’s still horrified by the priest who told her she should be glad of it.
She and Tom did well during the Depression, since he had a city job with the highway department. Grace worked at Mack Truck for 25 years. “And they wrote me the nicest letter,” she said. They also sent her a stuffed Mack bulldog, and she wears the bulldog pendant around her neck. She was a countomidor operator back in her day.
In the days before computers, she was responsible for the payroll and mastered the complex system that figured out pay rates. She was at Mack Truck when World War II ended, but was on vacation and missed the hoopla. She left in 1965, when she turned 63.
Grace has been in the nursing home for nine years, since the end of August 1993, after a fall. Patricia Rohde is the niece who looks after her now, the same niece who Grace used to take to B. Altman’s toy department and who used to call her aunt “Chubby.”
As for the secret of her long life” “I don’t know,” she said. “I never dwelt on it. I lived a good life. But other than that, I was just a normal person,” She said with her trademark giggle.
“It’s like my skin. My mother had nice skin, too. But as for long life — you’d better ask God!”