Most people need a history book to learn what Russia was like before the Revolution in 1917, but that's a childhood memory for 105-year-old Helen Strapko.
Mrs. Strapko was 28 when she came to the United States in 1913. She left a life on a farm in an area near Poland known as Byelorussia (White Russia).
She and many others chose to emigrate "to have a better life for herself and her future family," her children said.
She landed in New York City and lived with many of her countrymen. Shortly before World War I, she met and married Michael Strapko, another Russian immigrant.
The couple later moved to North Tonawanda. Mrs. Strapko went to night school in the 1930s and, with the help of her children, memorized the Constitution and became a U.S. citizen.
Her husband died 27 years ago, and Mrs. Strapko kept her own home until she was 97. Her three children -- Elsie Balogh, William S. Strapko and Mary Gabel -- still live in North Tonawanda. She also has six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Saturday, surrounded by her family in the Mount View Health Facility at a luncheon marking her 105th birthday, Mrs. Strapko was alert and happy, smiling and laughing at all the attention she received.
Mrs. Strapko has trouble hearing and often reverts back to her native tongue, Ukrainian.
But her family translates for her, and the Mount View staff says she understands when they speak to her.
Mrs. Gabel said she thinks her mother's long life can be attributed to her lifestyle. "She was fairly active and never overate. She always had a garden where she grew lots of fresh vegetables and stressed nutrition and good food. She is also a religious person."
Debbie I. Taylor, activities director at Mount View, described Mrs. Strapko as "amazing."
"We see many people here who are old at 60 and others who are young at 105," Mrs. Taylor said. "Her family is devoted and visits often, and she lights up whenever they visit and clearly loves attention. . . . She is very personable and bright and loves to play bingo. She also attends Mass weekly."
Health and longevity seem to run in the Strapko family. Mrs. Strapko said her mother's grandfather lived to be 105 and was very active. Her son, William, is tan and trim and teaches tennis at the age of 71.
One of her children once asked Mrs. Strapko if she would like to go back to Russia. "No, it is better here," Mrs. Strapko is said to have replied. "Why would I want to go back?"