A full life: Phifer dies at 107

Flora Connor Phifer may have been Milford’s longest living resident when she died last week at 107.

The late Dr. Helen Langner was 105 when she died in 1997, and Ruth Platt, another well-known resident, was 106 when she died in 2001, according to City Historian Richard Platt.

But he and City Clerk Linda Stock said there really isn’t any official way to determine who is or was the oldest city resident, other than searching through years and years of birth and death certificates.

“And even then, that might not tell you,” Platt said.

Whether she was the oldest resident or not, Phifer was a Milford resident well worth remembering.

The Milford Mirror ran an article about her in 2009, when she turned 103. Then, she had a book about Martin Luther King in her possession, one that she had bought in the 1960s, and a newspaper story that captured the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Those two items said a lot about a Milford woman who could recall when she was a young girl growing up on the North Carolina farm on which her parents had once been slaves.

“She never thought she’d live to see a black man become president,” said her great-granddaughter Christine Smith.

The Thirteenth Amendment brought slavery to an end in 1865, but Phifer’s parents — very young at the time — continued to live at the former slaveholder’s property and were still there when Flora was born July 13, 1906.

The family had it “kind of tough” in those days, but there was always religion to give them hope. Her mother would cook for hours each Saturday so that a meal would be awaiting the family when they returned from all-day Sunday church services.

Eventually she met and married Edward Phifer, who attended the same school she did. During her lifetime, she had a son, Charles, then grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She worked as a live-in housekeeper for a while before settling in New York, where she retired from Gimbels Department Store in 1971.

Up until her death, family members and neighbors lovingly called her “Granny,” and she lived a comfortable life with her great-granddaughter, Christine, and Christine’s husband, Gerald, plus her two great-great-grandsons, Everett and Jason, in a north Milford home.

Christine remembers that when she was a child, Granny took care of her. After Granny retired from Gimbels, she said to Christine’s mother, “You go off and do what you have to do. I’ve got her.”

So Christine’s mother returned to school, while Granny took care of Christine in her Harlem home. As Christine grew up, Granny followed her and her mother to a Queens neighborhood so she could be an after-school caregiver to her young great-granddaughter.

“I was like a latchkey child,” Christine said, recalling that when Flora moved to Queens, she had a place to go after school until her mother got home.

And it didn’t end there.

When Christine had her son, Everett, she was working in a hospital and Granny, already in her 90s, insisted on moving to the Maryland neighborhood where the family lived so she could help Christine once again. Gerald traveled a lot for work, so Christine welcomed her great-grandmother’s company.

“She moved two apartments over, and she’d have dinner ready for us when I got home,” Christine said.

Perhaps it’s that kind of life pace that led to Phifer’s longevity, her family speculated. She’s always kept busy, and she’s always been a fast walker, they said.

“She says, ‘Everything in moderation,” Christine explained.

And of course, there’s the Bible, which Phifer kept close at hand.

“The New Testament story tells me a lot,” Phifer said on her 103rd birthday. “You can’t go wrong if you know right from wrong.”

Life hadn’t changed much in the past few years, Christine said, except that Granny had become a bit more wheelchair-bound. And even though she was 107, her death Sept. 16 was a surprise: She was hospitalized for a fairly routine infection, and the antibiotic was too much for her body.

But she had a full and happy life, Christine said.

Her sense of humor remained to the end: It wasn’t long ago that Flora said, “You know, I don’t know why God has still got me here.”

She loved her great-great-grandsons and lived vicariously through them, Christine said. Seeing them gave her purpose and motivation.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at Vertical Church, formerly Living Word Ministry, 225 Meloy Road in West Haven. Calling hours will be 11 to 1, with a memorial service from 1 to 2.