Two weeks after her 100th birthday, Adah Jaffer slowly reaches for a short glass filled with bourbon, ginger ale and ice — her daily drink before supper.
The glass jingles on a warm afternoon in the living room of the Coconut Grove condo that’s home to Jaffer, one of the Army’s first female veterans, a comedienne with a still-sharp wit, and a former music teacher.
Relics of a century of life dress the walls. Pictures of her in uniform mark her time in the Women’s Army Corps, the U.S. Army’s first group of servicewomen, during World War II. Jaffer, whose preferred instrument is the French horn, helped direct a band and organized entertainment for recovering soldiers in hospital wards in Charleston, South Carolina.
She eyes a black and white photo of her in a svelte black dress holding a violin taken during her six years after the war doing stand-up comedy and music as “Virginia Richmond.” Her stage name was an homage to her hometown.
“I looked rather cute there, didn’t I?” she says, leaning forward in an armchair in the center of the sunlit room.
A decorative horn fashioned from an animal’s tusk hangs above a small bugle near a glass door, and newspaper clippings from throughout her later years sit in frames on the wall behind her. Small slips of paper with dates and names pepper the photos and clippings, all from the electric typewriter in her office, which she still uses.
She smiles as she looks back on a truly full life.
“I’m old now, but I used to love parties,” she says in her warm Southern drawl. “Give me a drink and a group of people, and I’m fine. Especially if we were playing something.”
Jaffer turned 100 on May 9, and as she looks back on her time in the WAC, where women worked as radio operators, mechanics, cryptographers, typists and more, she says the decision to join wasn’t complicated.
She just figured it was the thing to do at the time.
“It seemed natural to be there,” she says. “What else would I do?”
Jaffer lives with the help of caregivers now, but they will tell you she is still mostly independent. One of her aides who’s worked with her for three years, Sherril Turner, says Jaffer is the most lively, spry woman her age she knows.
“I’ve worked with people her age before and they can barely do anything for themselves. She does everything but cook, but she never liked to cook anyway, even when she could,” she says with a chuckle.
Throughout her life, Jaffer’s passion has flourished on stage, in front of a crowd, bringing smiles to faces.
Jaffer started playing violin at age 7 and picked up the French horn at 22, but she could play many other instruments in her youth.
“I could play any damn thing you hand me,” she says. She stopped playing the French horn just two years ago, at age 98.
Three years after graduating with a Masters of Arts from Columbia University in 1940, she joined the WAC. She reached the rank of U.S. Army Technical Sergeant during her time as associate conductor of the 403rd ASF Band, and she played for wounded soldiers in recovery.
“When you’re stuck in bed you love to see the girls come in,” she says.
After she was discharged in 1946, she spent six years doing a comedy act throughout New England, then turned to teaching band and orchestra to schoolchildren. She met her husband, Harold Jaffer, in 1953 while visiting her brother in Miami. A veteran himself, Harold served in the Israeli army during the 1948 War of Independence before moving to South Florida.
Adah and Harold married in 1953, and they moved to Miami the following year.
“If you come from Richmond, Virginia, Miami’s really something,” she says.
Adah and Harold, who passed away in 1995, went on to have two children. Adah is known as one of the oldest members of the Temple Judea in Coral Gables, where the congregation plans to hold a special evening Shabbat service at 6 p.m. Friday to honor her.
Jaffer doesn’t boast about reaching the century mark. Rather, she speaks plainly, with no trace of dissatisfaction, about how any day could be her last.
“When I go to bed at night, I think this could be it,” she says.
But nearly every breath she takes is followed by a dose of her joyful attitude, a fond memory, a hearty laugh or a witty quip. Take her first thought while recalling her first days in the WAC.
“The shoes were terrible, just terrible,” she deadpans. “I went up to the person giving the stuff and said, ‘Can we get shoes? Can we buy them? Can we do something?’ And I did get better ones.”
With age come the questions on how to maintain longevity. She gives simple advice.
“Live in the present, take care of what you can,” she says. “If you want to have some parties, fine, but stay in the present.”
And, of course, treat yourself right.
“If you make it to 100, be glad. Have extra drinks.”