August 08, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN THE CARDWELL TRIPLETS were born on their parents’ cotton farm north of Waco, Texas, back on May 18, 1899, the doctor (who got there in time to deliver only the youngest) suggested they be named Lillie, Lola and Lula. Their parents, Elza and Eliza, didn’t much take to those names—or, indeed, to any others suggested. For six months, the babies went nameless. Word of their parents’ dilemma got into the newspapers and finally reached the ear of Frances Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland. She suggested that the babies be called Faith, Hope and Charity—and so, in order of birth, they were.

Today, 95 years, 18 Presidents and a total of six husbands later, Faith, Hope and Charity are still in Texas, at the Holiday Retirement Center in Sweetwater, and are, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest triplets in the world. “It’s a wonderful life to live that long,” says the once-divorced, thrice-widowed Charity, who does most of the talking for the three. “You just know that you’re living, and you’re enjoying it.”

Charity, who still gets a chuckle out of quoting the verse from 1 Corinthians that goes, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity…but the greatest of these is charity,” attributes the trio’s longevity to their “old-timey life” in West Texas—”working hard in the fields, picking cotton.” Later, never straying far from their hardscrabble roots, they worked in the Sweetwater area, where Faith ran a family-style diner, Charity had a beauty parlor, and Hope helped both of them out.

Always close—Charity once sent look-alike Faith off on a date in her place “and he never did know the difference”—the three continue to rely on one another. Of Hope’s three offspring, a son and a daughter survive. Faith’s two children have died, as have Charity’s, one in infancy, and a son, Philip, who drowned at 14. But though they’ve had their share of sadness, says Charity, “it’s still a good life. We play dominoes. We play every kind of game you can think of, old-fashioned games.”

In the retirement home, the three have separate rooms—and for a very good reason. “They still fight,” says Clara Tyler, the center’s activities director, “just like sisters.”

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