Surrounded by family, Frances Tarantino beamed before they leaned over to help blow out 100 small, flickering flames on the candles atop her white-and-blue ice cream cake, inscribed with “Happy 100th Birthday, Mama Mia.”
“It means ‘My mother,’” the New York native, whose parents came to the United States from Palermo, Italy, said. “I’m everybody’s mother.”
Born in Watertown, N.Y., Tarantino said she never smoked, didn’t drink much — but when she did, it was a whiskey sour, and beer — and always had her or her family cook food from home instead of eating out. Her favorite is “macaroni and anything — peas, beans, broccoli.”
She credits her longevity to drinking tea and her family. Tarantino has two children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — and some unofficial children at Park View at Columbia, the independent senior-living community where she’s lived for about 15 years.
“She’s like a second mom to me,” said Karen Goodwin, 80, a Park View resident for about eight years who’s known Tarantino just as long. “My mom’s gone.”
Twenty-four-year resident Rudy Tyrell, 88, who gave her the nickname from the “Mamma Mia!” movie because it’s a “good Italian name,” said he’s her “adopted son,” and she shares the meatballs her family makes her with him. Fran Parkins and Mary Paterson said she’s treated their respective grandchildren kindly — asking about them, slipping them dollars, pushing them on walkers and feeding them cookies when they visit.
Tarantino’s had her share of health challenges — Ménière's disease, an inner-ear disorder that deals with balance, a heart attack, pneumonia, cataracts surgeries and skin cancer surgery on her nose — but that hasn’t stopped her from being a dedicated cards and game player. She regularly plays Ten Pennies, Pokeno, canasta, Left-Right-Center and bingo with other Park View residents — and won $20 last week doing so.
“I don’t spend it, it’s in an envelope,” Tarantino said. “I don’t get out, everything is here for me.”
She worked as a seamstress in New York, rolling hems on bridal veils. She recalls rationing during the Great Depression, waiting in line for goods, such as flour, and the “cold, cold, cold” winters of her youth in Watertown, near Lake Ontario.
Her daughter, RaeAnn Wuestman, describes her as “fiercely independent,” with a sharp mind. An aide, provided by Howard County through an aging-in-place initiative, comes on Friday mornings for about four hours to do light housekeeping, Wuestman said, and she comes over daily to cook and spend time with her, with her daughter coming by on the weekend.
“She’s 100. She does remarkably well,” said Wuestman, a retired college professor who also lives in Columbia.
According to a National Center for Health Statistics brief from January 2016, there were 72,197 people aged 100 or over in 2014, a 43.6 percent increase from the number in 2000, 50,281, though centenarians remain uncommon.
A long lifespan doesn’t necessarily run in the family — her mother died at 56, and her father at 45. Tarantino is one of eight children, and one other, sister Nettie Davi, is 102. Tarantino said her faith keeps her going.
“Well, I pray for them. That’s it,” Tarantino, a Roman Catholic, said. “I say my prayers. A lot of the time, I think of my sisters. I think of my brothers. I think of my children, grandchildren — I’ve got them all near me, which I’m lucky. And I thank God, every day.”
Her first celebration was at Park View on her actual birthday, June 8, with 60 residents and family members attending. Mama Mia will give it a go again on June 23, when about 100 people are expected to attend a party at the Owen Brown Community Center, Wuestman said.
“You asked what kept her alive,” Darlene Striano, her granddaughter, said. “The truth is, when we leave her, we’re drained, because we give our life to her. And it’s really weird, but it’s the truth.”