Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Living to be 100: Is it Genes, Joy, or Stubborn Will?

On this day in 1911 a little baby girl was born in Casorzo, Italy to Giuseppe and Giulia Datomo. Not too long after, they carried their baby on a boat to the New World where Giuseppe would set up his carpentry shop in Greenwich Village and taking advantage of weekly standing room only seats, this amateur musician would cultivate in his young daughter a love and passion for opera. Learning the delicate handicrafts of lacemaking and dressmaking from her mother, Victoria would, as a young woman, stand out among the crowd of other seamstresses at Butterick's Shirt Factory. She could sew faster and more accurately than any of the other women, such that Mr. Butterick, chose Victoria to help design the next shirt. While her design was bought by Neiman Marcus in Texas, she fought with Mr. Butterick about the design implementation arguing that the diagonal stripes were going in the wrong direction and no one would buy it now. She was right, but being a strong-minded powerful woman in 1934 didn't always make you friends in high places. That is, until Victoria's incredible passion for opera and, in particular, the rising star from Montclair, NJ, Dorothy Kirsten. Victoria was the president of her fan club, but then her personal secretary, and then her personal hairdresser, seamstress, absolutely-indispensible-everything personal assistant. And as Ms. Kirsten catapulted to fame as one of the Metropolitan Opera's most lucious mezzo-sopranos, Victoria was right there with Dorothy Kirsten every step of the way. To her death bed, in fact. And as we who know Vicki say-- "and beyond." Even though it was almost 20 years ago that Dorothy Kirsten passed away, you can be sure that Victoria Datamo Hillebrand keeps the torch of her devotion lit eternally. But that's a story for another time-- What we really need to celebrate is that Victoria is 100 years old today! And while genetics must certainly have something to do with this longevity, I would venture to say that the secret to my grandmother's centenarian success is a contribution of many factors.
-a sense of purpose for at least 95 years-- That purpose-- keep Dorothy's memory alive
-an utter distaste for illness of any kind in self or others -- I can remember being 8 years old and having a horrible cough on our way to Dorothy's home in Pauma Valley. "You had better stop that coughing right this minute, young lady. You are not sick."
-never having a driver's license-- directly this means that she has walked many, many miles in her life, but an ancillary to not having a driver's license means you never also had to deal with any of the stresses associated with driving, nor do you feel bereft and limited when that privilege is revoked due to your age.
-the fear of dying -- before the rift between her daughter (my mother) and she will resolve in some sort of forgiveness -- Forgiveness of the daughter for not measuring up to Victoria's incredibly demanding health expectations, and forgiveness of the mother for abandoning the daughter in order to pursue all things Dorothy.
-sheer stubborness and joie de vivre -- as all things in Victoria's life have been done on her terms only--- and frankly, despite her cranky posits that "god must be punishing [her] for letting her live so long", Victoria Hillebrand would absolutely not have it any other way.