Alvina Merzrath runs her hands – fingernails painted the colour of pink geraniums – up and down the newspaper pages in front of her.

These hands have spent decades in motion, spooling colourful thread into a machine to make lettering for shirts, hats, jackets or flags. The fluid movements are a lifetime habit.

Merzrath recently turned 102, no small feat for anyone but especially poignant for a woman who has been shot at and robbed at knife point.

She’s been asked this question before. How has she managed to live this long?

“I stuck to my ideas,” she said. “I’m so thankful I was in good condition. My mind is clear. I just kind of always kept on going.”

Merzrath had a bumpy start to life. Her mother died when she was three and her father sent the toddler and her brother to separate orphanages. The family was reunited when Merzrath was 14.

That might have set the stage for her determination. Merzrath, who owned an embroidery shop, worked long past typical retirement sewing names on police jackets, onto leather jackets for motorcycle riders, and onto sashes and costumes for the city’s German clubs.

In 1997, when she was 83, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Bill Janz wrote about Merzrath and the undying spirit that kept her going as “the owner, operator and only employee” of Merzrath Embroidery Co.

He called her “Milwaukee’s sturdy stock” because her business had been broken into several times. She had been robbed at knifepoint during one robbery attempt. She was shot over US$5 in another. That’s the story she remembers best.

Merzrath said she and her brother were at the store, 2449 W. Fond du Lac Ave, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a woman they didn’t know shot her brother in the hand. Merzrath said she told the woman, “Hey, listen now. I don’t put up with this. You get out.”

The newspaper account tells a slightly different version. The shooter was a man and Merzrath’s brother, Ernie, tried to knock the gun away and was shot.

Either way, the assailant turned the gun on Merzrath and hit her in the abdomen. Her connections with the police helped her get a speedy response (they got the shooter) and a quick ride to the hospital, she said.

Women barely had the vote when she started her own business, but she said she wanted to embroider for people because putting a name on something “meant they were somebody”.

The business was on the first floor; Merzrath lived on the second floor of the three-story building. Eight years ago, she left both behind and moved to Iris Manor, a group home in a cozy Wau-watosa bungalow. She was 94 at the time.

Merzrath talks in robust spurts as she lets a cup of tea cool next to her at the table. Occasionally, she looks off into the distance as if she can see her stories there. After years of wearing an apron and an eye shade for work, Merzrath has developed a taste for costume jewellery. A necklace of white pearls falls on the purple shirt she’s wearing. Pearl bracelets circle each wrist.

Merzrath is hard of hearing, and Iris Manor house manager Linda Sanchez shouts questions in her ear. But the tiny, white-haired woman filled with more grit than actual size is often on her own conversational track. She’ll answer Sanchez with an impatient “yeah” but continues the story she is telling.

Right now, she’s remembering when she cleaned floors for a woman who owned a grocery store. Then she describes the screened-in porch at the hospital where they operated on her legs. She had to keep them bandaged for a year. Merzrath was born with a piece of skin connecting her legs that kept her from standing.

She still sews a little. She made a coat for Pancho, a 17-year-old terrier mix who spends his days at Iris Manor. She gets around with a walker or the wheelchair that attendants use to take her out in the neighbourhood. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she gets a ride to Catholic Charities for bingo and arts and crafts.

Her long life seems to surprise her.

“I didn’t see time was passing by,” she said. “I was 60. Then I was 90. Now I’m going to have a birthday.”

Iris Manor will celebrate Merzrath’s birthday on Nov 21. The staff has invited the Red Raiders Marching Band from Wauwatosa East High School to the party. – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS