Cherie Wheeler always spoke in whispers as a child.
When German soldiers occupy your Belgian hometown during World War I, you try to keep a low profile.
“My parents were the ones who always told me to whisper,” Wheeler said. “It took me a long time to stop talking that way.”
Wheeler has something to shout about later this month.
The Sun City West resident turns 100 on April 29 and spent part of her day recently reflecting on her life’s journey.
“It’s OK sitting here talking about my life with you now,” Wheeler said during an interview inside her Grandview Terrace apartment. “But on my birthday, all my friends and family will be there.
“They’ll want me to make a speech, and I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
Ready or not, life happens.
Wheeler learned that lesson at the age of 4 when the German army occupied her hometown of Gent, Belgium.
Wheeler, an only child, and her parents lived in a large building that housed her grandfather’s business, outfitting ships for sea voyages.
German soldiers used an adjacent building as a storage area.
Wheeler could see the soldiers from an upstairs window, going in and out each day for supplies.
“I didn’t like those hats,” she said in reference to the spiked helmets worn by the Germans.
Wheeler watched with equal parts of fear and anger as the German soldiers trekked in and out of the warehouse.
Relying on a 4-year-old’s creativity, she decided to do something about it.
Noticing her grandmother’s holy water on a nearby dresser, Wheeler devised a simple, yet effective drip system, with water weaving its way from the window onto a nearby roof, and then onto the soldiers below.
“The soldiers never figured out what was happening, but my mother did, especially when she had to keep replacing the holy water,” Wheeler said.
Her family eventually escaped to England, joining her father, who had been stuck in that country when the war broke out. Her grandfather was shot by the Germans in retaliation for helping them escape.
Life wasn’t any easier in England.
Bombing raids kept citizens on constant edge.
One raid sent Wheeler flying across a room and left her with a concussion that most likely contributed to her going blind in the 1980s.
“After the bombing, I could never get both of my eyes to focus on the same thing at the same time,” Wheeler said. “I have limited peripheral vision, but it has deteriorated through the years.”
During their stay in England, Wheeler’s mom bought her daughter a doll.
In a war-torn country, the doll provided a little piece of a childhood and comfort for 8-year-old Wheeler.
Wheeler still has the doll, which accompanied her to America in 1924 and has been with her at every subsequent stop, from New York and Chicago, to Omaha, Neb., and Sun City West.
She began making her own dolls later in life and has an extensive collection in her Grandview Terrace apartment. Before she went blind, she also enjoyed painting, with numerous vases and portraits throughout her home.
Her family will be in town for the birthday celebration on April 29. That guest list includes two sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
As she counts the days to becoming a centenarian, Wheeler still maintains that healthy dose of spunk which she displayed as a 4-year-old in Belgium.
Asked for words of wisdom as she approaches her 100th birthday, she smiled and paused.
“I was hoping you’d ask about that,” Wheeler said. “You’re on your own.
“You just have to go with the flow.”
Rich Bolas is the managing editor of the Daily News-Sun. He may be reached at 623-876-2523 or via email at email@example.com.