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About Utah: If you're 106, life's a parade

SALT LAKE CITY — Afton DeHaan can remember every delicious detail about July 24th celebrations 50, 60, 70 — even 100 years ago. She can describe the dresses she wore, the presents she got, the parties, the fireworks.

It's yesterday she has a little more trouble remembering.

So it goes when you've just turned 106.

Afton's birthday was Saturday. She was a Pioneer Day birthday girl when she came into this world on July 24, 1904. A century and six years later, she's still a Pioneer Day birthday girl.

For years, when she was a little girl growing up on the family farm in North Ogden, she thought all the fuss and the fireworks on the 24th was because of her.

"I used to say, 'Isn't this wonderful, mother? All this for my birthday?' " says Afton, as if their conversation was just last week.

And what was her mother's response?

"She'd just smile," Afton says, smiling herself at the memory. "She didn't want to make me feel bad."

Afton knows now that the 24th is her birthday AND Utah's birthday.

But it hasn't slowed down the party any — or the birthdays.

She entered into her 107th year of living Saturday with a sleepover — and a fireworks show — at daughter Irene's home in Heber. Before that, her daughter, Joanne, threw a neighborhood open house for her at the home she's lived in on 1700 South since she and her husband, John, had it built in 1945.

It came with a $5,000 mortgage. They thought they'd never pay it off.

Now it's her little slice of paid-off heaven on Earth — her anchor to the past and ticket to the present.

In her home, Afton finds herself surrounded by pleasant mementoes, including many that remind her of John, who died of leukemia 40 years ago.

"She doesn't like anything moved; she likes things to stay as they are," says Irene. "She refused the microwave oven we brought in. She asked us to take it out. She doesn't want any new improvements."

Afton accepts helpers during the day to fix meals and help with the housework, mainly because arthritis in her knee has reduced her to a wheelchair.

But home is where her heart is.

"I love to wake up and see the sunrise," she says. "And at night, I like to see the sunset. It's a wonderful life, and I'm happy I can live in this time."

If her attitude was contagious, the entire world should get close enough to get infected. Afton is not into discouragement or cynicism.

Her lifelong motto, says Irene, is, "If you don't feel good, get up and work it off."

Her roots — appropriate for one with a July 24 birthday — reach into the very depths of Mormonism. Her great-grandmother Jemima Brown Rogers was a member of the Willie Handcart Company that had to be rescued after getting mired in deep snow in Wyoming en route to the Salt Lake Valley in 1856.

Fresh in Afton's mind is the image of Elizabeth, her great-grandmother's adopted daughter, whose hair froze off in the bitter cold.

For the rest of Elizabeth's life, the hair never grew back.

"She always wore a lace cap on her head," says Afton. "I was so curious as a girl, I always tried ways to sneak a peak under it."

She's still curious, although now her main interest is history. According to Irene, she reads all day long, despite declining eyesight.

"I especially like to read ancient history," Afton says. "History is really an education."

One thing she refuses to do is worry — about the past or the future.

"I try to solve problems, but I don't worry myself sick about them," she says. "You shouldn't worry about things you can't change; just be honest and say your prayers."

At the end of our most delightful chat, I told Afton I wanted to write about her 106th birthday in the Deseret News.

For the first time, she showed a hint of concern.

"Now everybody will know," she said. "I've tried to keep it a secret."

For the life of me, I don't think she was kidding.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.