This month marks one decade since I first strolled through the front door of the Oakdale Leader in hopes of acquiring a job. It’s a story I have recounted and told numerous times, so I will spare you all the retelling of history.
Much has changed, both professionally and personally in my life during the past decade. The memories I have of my early days as a ‘small town’ reporter sustain me through some difficult days at my desk.
I’m a people person. So being assigned the “Living” Section 10 years ago, was pretty much a match made for eternity. Things are ever changing, however, in life and the newspaper business, so my days of the Living Section will now be a story to tell my grandchildren some day.
The connections I made during that period of my career were just simply amazing. One connection to Oakdale senior, Vera Piccetti has been cited in past columns.
Vera and I first came to know one another in 2003 as she was days from celebrating her 100th birthday. We met in her Oakdale home and well… let’s just say I was treated to a trip of time travel I will never forget. Spunky, spry, funny, wise, genuine are just a few words which accurately describe the lady I came to know in January 2003. In 2003, 100-year-old residents were not common knowledge to the Senior staff at the Oakdale Leader. So when contacted about her coming birthday by Linda Royalty, I was given the assignment. Every year thereafter I arrived at the Gladys Lemmons Senior Center, camera in hand to help Vera celebrate yet another year.
One year I actually joked that she was my ‘job security.’ Following Vera and her life as it buzzed through the calendar became a joke among myself and a few staffers. Invariably each year the call would come. Typically the person taking the call would not realize what ‘the big deal was.’ Without fail notebook and camera in hand I would once again sing “Happy Birthday” to Vera.
Our relationship stretched for seven years. By her 107th birthday it became more ‘mainstream’ media. News channels featured her and other newspapers decided to show up and see what all the fuss was about. Like a proud parent holding a valued secret, I could not help but smile as I watched the attention swirl around sweet Vera. She of course would often share privately that she did not see ‘what all the fuss was about.’ Yet each year she blew out the candles, smiled and thanked everyone for the lovely birthday.
Sadly, earlier this year, Vera passed away. She was 109 at the time of her passing. I missed birthday 108 and 109, but I still see her smile as bright as it was on 100 and every birthday thereafter.
Vera was a preemie weighing in at three pounds, eight ounces on January 4, 1903. It was a much simpler time. Keeping such a small baby alive at that time was more than miraculous, it was rare. Vera shared in our first meeting the story of her parents using the oven to keep her warm, serving as a pseudo womb for their small infant.
“I’ve always said I’m half-baked,” she stated in 2003. “Now look what they (hospitals) have - everything.”
As a spectator I would like to say much of Vera’s longevity stemmed from a healthy sense of humor and a positive outlook on life. But Vera … well she had her own opinion on the secret to a long life.
“Eat a lot and go,” Vera stated when posed the question at our first meeting. “It’s important to not stay idle and I’ve never missed a meal. I’ve been all over the United States, Canada, Alaska and Europe. I’ve always liked to go.
“I enjoy life more now than when I was younger,” she stated. “I have no regrets. I have been treated loyal and I have wonderful friends.”
When all is said, done and finished ... isn’t that what life is truly all about? A ‘full’ life might be as short as 10 years or as long as 109, but in the end it is what we choose to do with the time which occupies the middle.
Vera knew that all too well and she lived each day of her life as if the next 100-plus birthday was all but a thought.
With all that I learned from this wise lady there is one thing I do know for sure, she was far from ‘half-baked.’ And yes … in late December I will miss overhearing that phone call to come and help my friend Vera celebrate yet another milestone birthday.
Teresa Hammond is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News and The Escalon Times. She may be reached at email@example.com or by calling 847-3021.