By Lee Coppola
“Is that Lee’s wife?” someone asked about the woman, 26 years my senior, sitting next to me in church. It was an understandable mistake.
As we live to riper old ages these days, Mary Saraceno sets the standard for growing old gracefully. She’s 99, looks 30 years younger and dresses and acts accordingly.
What’s your secret, she was asked repeatedly at the function where she was mistaken for my wife. “Keep moving,” was her sage and succinct answer. And, indeed, she follows her own advice. Just ask the “youngsters” she walks with daily at the Boulevard Mall. Or anyone in her family (she was one of 13 children) who has tasted the food and baked goods she seemingly always produces.
Is it the genes? That’s a factor doctors mention when discussing oldsters who live past the average age of death. In Mary’s case, that’s a possibility. One of her nine sisters lived to 102. Then again, another one died at 33.
The better explanation: activity. For years, my wife worked for a doctor. The healthiest senior patients, she said, usually came to their appointments garbed in exercise togs. Mary walks regularly these days, but for more than 70 years her exercise was prowling the aisles of the grocery stores she operated with her husband, Sebastian. Workdays lasted 10 hours or more, and after her husband died, rising before the sun and getting to the store was routine.
To her customers, first at the Royal Market on William and Hickory, then at Kulick’s on William and Jefferson, she was “Miss Mary,” stern when necessary but always attuned to their needs. For instance, if she felt a customer was not fit to drive, she dispatched one of her employees to drive him or her home. When her store was robbed, her customers made the thief return the money.
Once, she even helped put a drug dealer behind bars. A critical witness in the case was not cooperating with a federal prosecutor until the witness learned Miss Mary was the prosecutor’s aunt. The witness’s testimony eventually helped convict the drug dealer.
Today, Miss Mary never seems to sit still. At her recent 99th birthday party she flitted through her daughter’s house taking care of guests and eschewing offers to sit. Naturally, her daughter and son already have made plans for her 100th birthday.
She lives alone in a single-family house. She cooks, cleans, does laundry and irons clothes; she shops; she drives an aged Lexus, although not at night; she attends the St. Jude Chapel for a weekly novena and for Mass on Sunday; and she plays bingo regularly and visits a casino often. She attends social events, always dressed smartly, and used to lunch weekly with friends until most of them died.
Assuredly, Mary does not stand alone in vibrancy for life at an advanced age. But she does provide an example of how to age. Her mantra seems to be: read voraciously, keep aware of the world around you and always seek and share recipes.
Geriatrics seems to be the catchword in medicine today as pills and advances in health care allow us to live longer than those who gave us life. But is it worth it to live longer if the quality of those extra years incapacitates us, or makes life more difficult to live than in prior years?
Perhaps, as the years fly by, it’s best, as Mary does, to keep active, keep involved and keep up your spirits. Maybe that’s why her only medication is an aspirin a day.
Lee Coppola is the retired dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism at St. Bonaventure University.