I went to a birthday party the other day for someone who has lived through the flu pandemic of 1918, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the nuclear jitters of the Cold War and the disastrous first four months of Donald Trump.
Alma Balter, at age 100, takes in that century of life with a shrug and looks around the table at who’s not going to finish their dessert. She is no fickle eater. When we go out to dinner, everyone else orders a light pasta or just a salad.
“I’ll have the porterhouse,” she says. That is, if the ribs aren’t available. I’ve seen a hefty slab, smothered in barbecue sauce, disappear at her end as if she were hosting a conqueror’s feast in “Game of Thrones.” The waiter usually pauses. The smaller portion, ma’am?
“No, the 12-ouncer is fine.”
What is she going to do later – farm labor, lifting 50-pound hay bales or moving granite stones? She burns most of her calories, it turns out, with a bridge game.
Alma is one of more than 70,000 people in the United States who are alive today having made it to triple digits – a growing demographic. She shares an apartment complex, and many a meal, with Holocaust survivors, widows of Nazi-killing war heroes and people who knew Jackie Robinson when he played four sports at UCLA, a few blocks from her home in Westwood. At present, her health is fine, as is the aforementioned appetite.
When you go to a 100th birthday party – my first – people always want to know the secret to long life. Last month, Emma Morano died at the age of 117 at her home in Italy. She was, for a time, the world’s oldest human. Her secret was not something cardiologists would recommend: She ate three eggs a day, two of them raw, and was a regular consumer of hazelnut cookies chased by home-spiked grappa. The drink, for those who’ve never been in a road emergency on the Italian autostrada, might work as fuel for your Fiat in a pinch.
Given that you can break the rules of health-obsessives and still live longer than friends who eat like squirrels, I’m more interested in the time that these folks have passed, rather than how they got there.
Alma was born during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, the same year and month that John F. Kennedy came into the world. One in 10 U.S. babies would not live to see their first birthday. Life expectancy at birth was 54. The United States had just entered the First World War, that senseless clash that took the lives of about 17 million people and upended centuries-old empires.
The first miracle of her life was surviving to the age of 2 – during the flu pandemic. It killed more people than the war, 20 to 40 million worldwide, probably more than died during the bubonic plague of the 14th century. By the time the flu subsided, at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, women could not legally drink alcohol, along with everyone else. But finally they could vote.
During the Great Depression, when 1 in 4 U.S. adults were out of work and many homes still did not have indoor plumbing, the birthrate plummeted, as did hope. And then came World War II, which killed upward of 60 million people – about 3 percent of the global population.
To come of age in the middle part of what may have been the bloodiest century in history requires you to remember that one should never let yesterday use up too much of today.
It would get scarier still. Since the 1950s, nuclear war – the lights-out, end-it-all global annihilation – has hung over humanity. But then we got smartphones, all the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands. And for the first time, really old age was not uncommon.
Trump presents a special problem for those in the ultra-golden years. They can remember a lot of presidents who are now turning over in their graves. He is singularly, historically, epically awful – scary in his willful incompetence. And yet, given what a centenarian has seen, you know that he, too, will pass, and we will survive.
“I know how lucky I am,” Roger Angell wrote in a 2014 essay in his longtime literary home, The New Yorker. “Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there.” He was 93 and lucid enough that he could not forget Keats, Dick Cheney or what was waiting for him at the dry cleaner.
On her birthday, Alma noted that one of her relatives lived to be 106 – implying that many more helpings of thick beef slabs, and whiskey sours at happy hour, were ahead. She told a joke about a man who made a scratchy sound by rubbing two fingers together, as a way to keep the elephants away. No, he was told – you’re crazy! Why keep doing it?
“It’s worked so far.”