Column: Celebrating a 100th birthday, if only for a few hours

Jennie V. Macksel

The call came in the early hours of Jan. 22.

At home in Southold, Dorothy Ann Jester struggled to comprehend the news. A day meant for celebration had suddenly become a day of mourning.

A parent’s death, even late in life, can be numbing. No one can ever really be prepared to hear those fateful words.

Ms. Jester’s mother, Jennie V. Macksel, always liked to wake up early. In that sense, it seemed fitting that she passed away before sunrise.

“It was hard for a while,” Ms. Jester, 80, recalled this week. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was terrible.”

That day, Ms. Jester had made cupcakes to bring to San Simeon by the Sound in Greenport, where her mother had spent the final four years and eight months of her life. It was her mom’s birthday and a grand one, too, the centennial celebration: 100 years old.

For the longest time, Ms. Jester’s husband, Clarence, kept saying his mother-in-law would live to 100. She had always been active and in good health, so she had to make it, he insisted.

He was right. Ms. Macksel did live to see her 100th birthday — if only for a few hours.

When her obituary ran in last week’s paper, the dates practically jumped off the page. Born Jan. 22, 1917, in Riverhead. Died Jan. 22, 2017. What are the odds? I could only find a few stories online of people who died on their 100th birthday. One Google thread I found from several years ago began with someone inquiring whether a famous or infamous person had ever died on their 100th birthday. Those who responded came up with no definitive names. A few were close, such as British politician Edgar Granville, who died two days after his 100th birthday on Feb. 14, 1998.

When the 2010 U.S. Census was taken, the country was home to 53,364 centenarians, or 17.3 per 100,000 people. Amazingly, 82.8 percent of them were women.

When I called Ms. Jester this week, she was more than happy to share stories about her mother. She told me Ms. Macksel spent her life on farms, picking vegetables and delivering them across the North Fork in a pick-up truck.

“That was in her blood,” her daughter said.

She spent some time helping an ill neighbor in Riverhead as a nurse’s aide, maintained beautiful gardens, loved to shop and always had dogs.

A petite woman who rarely ate big meals, Ms. Macksel loved to indulge on the right occasion. She particularly enjoyed her daughter’s cooking, whether it be lasagna, stuffed cabbage or Polish dishes like kielbasa and sauerkraut. Most days, however, she ate lightly — something Ms. Jester said helped explain her mom’s longevity.

“I think it’s the food,” she said. “I really do. You don’t overstuff yourself.”

Ms. Macksel also enjoyed cooking, and over the years there were countless dinners for all different occasions: some at her Riverhead home and others at her daughter’s residence in Southold.

“We would have my cousins come out from the city, so it was nice,” Ms. Jester said.

The daughter of John and Caroline Sydlowski, Ms. Macksel was born into a family of nine. Two of her siblings are still alive: her brothers Alex, 95, and Stanley Sydlowski, 89. Ms. Jester’s father came from a family of 10.

“When we had parties and get-togethers, there was a big family,” she said. “So now mine is dwindling down. Everything goes down.”

Ms. Jester’s brother Raymond, 78, still lives in Riverhead, but suffers from diabetes and has been unable to leave the house recently.

Ms. Macksel, an independent woman who never asked for help, sustained remarkable health throughout her life. Her daughter could recall only one time she needed to be admitted to a hospital and that was years ago. Her mom lived on her own — her husband, Samuel, died in 1975 — for more than three decades until she fell several years ago and needed extra care. She eventually found a home at San Simeon, which Ms. Jester said was the best place for her mom to spend her final years.

Ms. Jester visited her mother two or three times a week. It’s still hard for her to grip the fact that she won’t see her anymore.

“I’m thinking of her,” she said.

A funeral service was held last Wednesday, which happened to be Ms. Macksel’s husband’s birthday. It was a beautiful day, Ms. Jester said. The family opted against holding a wake: One pitfall of reaching the age of 100 is that you tend to outlive all your friends.

“Like the Father said, when you reach 100, there’s nobody there,” Ms. Jester said.

WerkmeisterThe author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].