SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At 112, Mother Ruby Muhammad wants to live to be the oldest person in the world, but for now she's fulfilling another dream: She'll be performing on stage — singing gospel, telling stories and reciting poems she's written — to commemorate Sacramento Community Women of Color Day in March.
"Why are we doing this show?" the event's organizer, local jazz singer Suzanne Brooks, asked the sharp, feisty Muhammad.
"Because you said so," Muhammad replied, and she started laughing. "I didn't plan it, you did."
"This is Mother Ruby's first performance," said Brooks. "She's spoken about her longevity before, but people generally have not viewed her as anything other than an old woman. But she has an incredible memory and sense of humor. Her poems are wonderful. She can finally be recognized as a performer."
Muhammad approves of this notion.
With her stage debut, which is scheduled to occur only a couple of weeks shy of her 113th birthday, she said: "I can be recognized as who I am."
It's a quiet morning in her small apartment in a South Sacramento seniors' community. Muhammad said she hopes her rehearsals and upcoming performance can take her mind off a fresh round of grieving. A favorite grandson-in-law died not long ago, and his loss distressed her so much that she went to the emergency room, fearing that she was having a heart attack.
She was not. But one of the burdens of extreme old age is outliving generations of loved ones and friends.
Even so, said Muhammad, "I always thought living this long was a gift that God gave me."
Born on a farm in Georgia, Ruby Grayer was raised by neighbors after her maternal grandmother died. She never knew her mother; she met her father only once. She chopped cotton, and she made up songs to help pass the time in the fields. When she was grown, she worked as a domestic.
She was married twice and had four children, along with more grands, great-grands and great-great-grands than she can remember. But she gets impatient when people ask her the secret to living so long, because she doesn't think living a long life requires secrets, just staying busy.
"I exercise," she said. "I turn on my jazz music, and I work out, baby."
Muhammad has lived through the sinking of the Titanic and two world wars, the atomic age, the space age and the digital age. Over the years, she lived in Atlanta, St. Paul and San Francisco before settling in Sacramento near five generations of her family.
"I've seen the world change," said Muhammad, who converted to Islam in 1946 and was given the title Mother by her faith.
What she does not have is a birth certificate. A family Bible that recorded her birth was given away when she was still a little girl, she says. She knows her birth date — March 20, 1897 — because that's what she was always told, she says.
Authenticating the claims of so-called "supercentenarians" like Muhammad is difficult without family Bibles or community records, but the UCLA-based Gerontology Research Group currently lists 77 validated supercentenarians across the globe.
The list includes the oldest American, Mary Josephine Ray of New Hampshire, who at 114 is only one week younger than the world's oldest person, a Japanese woman named Kama Chinen.
"When I went to get my first passport, it took me two years, because they couldn't find records of me anywhere, not where I went to school or where I was baptized," said Muhammad.
"They told me I wasn't even a citizen of the United States. I said, 'Look at me. I speak the same language you do. I worked in the cotton fields. I worked in the tobacco fields. And I'm here.' So the judge made me a citizen."
Muhammad will perform with Brooks at the annual Sacramento Community Women of Color Day show March 7.