Mabel Sawhill loves trendy sunglasses and stiletto heels. She’s got a personal shopper who keeps her up to date on the latest fashion trend.
And she likes to cook. In high heels. A lot.
In fact, Sawhill calls cooking her “ministry” and only brings in help when she caters events with more than 150 people. In fact, she catered her own birthday party for 677 of her guests this past weekend.
And the party celebrated a milestone. Sawhill turns 100 years old on Wednesday.
Dressed in an orange and yellow floral dress with orange high heels, Sawhill directed volunteers in the kitchen during her own birthday brunch.
Sawhill, a Silver Spring resident, had two birthday parties — one at the National Presbyterian Church on Saturday, and a brunch celebration at the Woman’s Club of Bethesda on Sunday.
At the brunch, she told volunteers what time to serve the first and second courses, which included meat pasta dishes, cornbread, spinach salads and pastries. She kept a watchful eye at the buffet to make sure there always was enough food for her guests.
Her birthday cake was made to look like a Chanel pink purse. A second cake was decorated with sugar zebra prints, with a mini pair of stilettos on top, makeup and nail polish capturing Sawhill’s personality.
Sawhill owns a private catering business she operates out of her own home. She drives to events and does her own grocery shopping.
Sometimes, she works at two events per day, comes home and cooks from midnight to 4 a.m. She then sleeps three to four hours and is up again to cater another party.
So far in 2013, Sawhill has catered more than 100 events — 20 in May alone. She gets business by word of mouth. She doesn’t own a cellphone.
On Friday, she prepared 3,000 sandwiches for 677 guests who came from all over the country to celebrate her birthday at the National Presbyterian Church.
“I have a lot of friends,” Sawhill said while laughing.
“Did you eat?” She kept asking relatives and close friends, but wouldn’t stop to enjoy her own birthday brunch. Sawhill was happy knowing she served “tasty” and “delicious” food to the people who came to share this special day with her.
Sawhill, a long-time Silver Spring resident, was born on Oct. 30, 1913, and lived on a farm in Iowa. She got whooping cough when she was just a month old. The bacteria, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, is a highly contagious respiratory disease that affects infants. It can be fatal in babies less than 1 year old.
The family’s doctor said, “I don’t believe I can save her.”
But Sawhill said the “great physician” had other plans for her.
A high school teacher in Iowa, Sawhill moved to Silver Spring when she was 28 after World War II.
“Everybody was doing their bit, and I thought I should do something for my country,” Sawhill said.
Sawhill was an administrative assistant at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and began catering weddings and churches dinners in her spare time before retiring in 1983. It quickly grew into the business she has today.
But she doesn’t call it a catering business. “I like to call it as my ministry,” she added.
During the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she packed her car with food she cooked in the morning and drove to Washington, D.C., even though others were evacuating the city. She went to the Capital Yacht Club and offered to serve dinner to police officers and firefighters. They came across the Potomac River on boats in two shifts of 25 people.
Sawhill is also a movie star. Independent filmmaker and director Pia Clement of California filmed Sawhill for a 28-minute documentary, in which producers followed her on events, at her shopping sprees and around her Silver Spring apartment last year. The movie is expected to be entered in independent film festivals all over the U.S. It made its debut during her birthday party at the National Presbyterian Church.
“In a lot of ways I looked at her as a second mom,” Sean Moore, her grandnephew, said through an interpreter. Moore was born deaf.
“Looking back in college, I struggled academically, and I took a break and for me, that is not easy to tell Mabel. And she said, ‘You know, that’s OK. Take the time you need. Take your break and when you are ready, get back to it, do it better than ever,’” Moore said.
Other relatives said she has supported and helped the family in many ways.
Sawhill would go to her nephew’s sports events; she put her nieces through private school and instilled Christian values in them.
“She never judges you. If you do something wrong, she doesn’t scold you for it,” said Megan Moore, Mabel’s grandniece. “But she tries to make sure that you learn in a good manner, in a good way.”
Sawhill doesn’t know the secret to a long life.
“I really don’t eat well. I don’t sleep right, but God very graciously has given me a beautiful life. Maybe not having a husband,” she said.