End-of-year time often makes me ponder about life. So I came to see Rosella Roberts, a good family friend, to learn some wisdom. At 97, she is relatively healthy and extremely lucid. Mrs. Roberts doesn’t cook or drive for three years now, but she enjoys shopping. Her 2-bedroom condo house in Bloomington, IN, is very clean and neat. All her furniture is antique – the first kitchen set she and her husband bought in 1936 when they were married, the dinning table set is from her parents, so are the chair and the cabinet. They have new paint and some adjustments, other than that, they are in great shape.
I know she has been dancing since high school – she actually taught me some moves at a dance party years ago, seeing how clumsy I was there. Therefore I was not surprised to learn, less than five minutes into the talk, that five years ago, of more than 120 people taking aerobics at YMCA and in different classes, the instructors voted her Person of The Year. “I was really honored because it was quite a distinction,” Mrs. Roberts said. “They had a big luncheon. Nice silver, nice china. And I got a rose every year.” She then quickly moved on to talk about travels, dancing, friends and family.
Her optimistic attitude and active personality are amazing. During the 2-hour chat, she constantly laughed. Yes, laughed not smiled. She laughed to start a response and she laughed to end a thought – as if her superfluous positive energy had to spill over in her laughter to keep balance for herself. I raised questions often asked of centenarians. Her responses made me feel as if I was the 97 year-old and not the other way around.
Anvi Hoang: What is your schedule like?
Rosella Roberts: I have my hair done every Friday, then dinner. My hair-dresser has done my hair ever since I lived here, for 50 years. It seems like 5 [laughed]. The nail person helped my husband before. Now she is helping me. I got my nails done every 2 weeks, and my toe nails every 4 weeks. Second and third Tuesday I have clubs. Every Thursday I go shopping with Arlene, a new girl, she drives my car. We go either food shopping or clothes shopping. Saturday I go with Wanda for lunch, and Sunday, Sandra [her daughter] and I take turns for dinner. I used to cook, now we go out on my turn [laughed].
AH: What do you do to keep yourself healthy?
RR: From the time we moved to Bloomington, my husband and I joined YMCA. He took lessons and I swam. When he died 6 years ago, my daughter said, “Mother, don’t swim by yourself. Join a class.” Three of them [in the class] were at my birthday party in October that I haven’t seen for three years. I broke my back three years ago, and I got better, went to the Y twice, and broke my ribs. I am very careful now, I use a walker in here; outside I use my cane.
I do my exercise every morning. I have a little bicycle – I can do that for an hour and I can watch TV. I go to bed at 11 and refuse to get up before 8 [laughed]. Sometimes it is 9 before I wake up [laughed].
I love to dance. I still dance sitting down [laughed loudly].
AH: When did you start dancing?
RR: My husband and I danced ever since high school. He was an Elk, we went every Saturday night dancing. When he died, my girlfriend and I went with her boyfriend to line- and social-dancing in Martinsville every Tuesday night. She died very suddenly of blood disease. Since then I just go with Don [son-in-law] and Sandra to New Year’s Eve. I didn’t go last year but the year before that I danced till two o’clock in the morning. My doctor and her husband were there. They had to leave at 10 o’clock. I love to dance – I’d rather dance than eat [laughed]. Plus I take a spoon of marinated raisins every morning.
AH: Do you think the [gin-soaked] raisins have kept you healthy till now?
RR: My husband said, “It is all in your head.” I said, “Alright with me.” I don’t have any arthritis [laughed].
AH: That is the power of the mind. How do you keep that going?
RR: I don’t think “if.” I don’t use the word “if.” I try to be happy everyday. I get up in the morning and open my door, I say “Good morning, world” [laughed].
AH: What makes you happy?
RR: It is the way I want to be. Find little things. I had a new bird house. My neighbor said she saw a bird go in it and that made me happy [laughed].
AH: A lot of people have a hard time finding happiness. What do you have to say to them?
RR: I try to keep a good attitude. I don’t complain. And, I think it is my attitude.
AH: Could people train to have a positive attitude?
RR: [Giggles]. You know, most of my friends are not here any more. Don said, “I don’t know why you don’t have a lot of friends.” I said, “Don, I’m 97 years old.” I belong to a group called Friends. When Carol died, my friend that I wend dancing with, my hairdresser said, “Why don’t you call Wanda. She likes to do things.” I called Wanda and asked, “Wanda, go to the Y?” – “No.” “Dance?” – “No.” “Do you play cards?” – “No.” “Do you like to go for lunch? – “Yes.” And we’ve gone every Saturday since. Maybe there’ll be four of us. Or somebody in the Friends has a birthday, she’s got to choose what restaurant she wants to go to. And there’ll be nine or ten of us on those birthdays.
AH: When you look back, could you count the happy moments?
RR: [Laughed]. I will have so many I couldn’t tell you [laughed]. My happy moments have been at our cottage. I have been there in summers. The time I am doing my Christmas cards – I am not a good writer any more but I’m doing them. I just sent one to my neighbor and said: “Time goes so fast. It seems like I was just there.”
See, my dad bought a farm for his parents and this is where I have my place [in Pennsylvania] now. He built 50 homes where I lived in Homestead Park called Munhall. When the Depression came, they were all steel workers. Everybody lost their jobs. He carried the mortgages and the bank failed, but he could keep the farm where he built 4 cottages – we have a tennis court, a dam, a creek, a picnic area. My husband and I would go there from April to October.
That is why we bought the condo [in Bloomington] that would be taken care of, from a mother and a daughter. When Sven-David and Ann-Marie [Swedish friends] first came they had no place to go so I rented them my condo. They stayed here for a whole summer until they bought their home. I couldn’t imagine Ann-Marie and Sven-David in this little condo [laughed]. They [in Sweden now] came to visit me every time they came back to Bloomington.
I love to decorate. I made wreaths outside my garage door for every month. I made those bells [on the walls]. I belong to a garden club. I love arts, I love to do things with my hands.
AH: Do you think young people these days are very different from when you were growing up?
RR: I don’t think so. I played tennis a lot, I swam. When I went to university, I played field hockey and basket ball. I went to a college called Slippery Rock and people made fun of it [laughed]. The difference with young people these days is they want everything right now. I get upset with how they spend. See, my husband and I would never buy anything that we couldn’t pay for. We never used the charge card. I use one now. If we wanted something we saved the money and then bought it.
AH: What has been interesting about like?
RR: Everything I’ve done I’ve been interested in [laughed]. There was a girl at the university who came over and did a term paper about my life.
I like to play cards, I belong to four bridge clubs now. I’ve flown with this Elk group, we would go to New York and to Atlantic City. And we would fly to New York to see the shows, and I won Queen for a day. It was a radio program and our bridge club went in. It was a contest you had to answer questions. And it was between one of my best friends and me. I said, “Helen, if I win I’ll take you, and if you win you’ll take me.” She said, “No, I’m taking my husband.” I won and she said “Oh, you’re gonna take me to New York?” I said, “No. I’m taking my husband.” And we got a red-carpet treatment. It was wonderful. We danced to Ray Anthony at the Waldorf Astoria, we were there for dinner. Every hour was planned. We saw the Ziegfeld Girl’s Dance and a lot of shows. I’ve got a new suit, and a new hat, and jewelry. That was 60 years ago.
We were on two cruises: one to Venezuela and we visited five islands for two weeks. Then we went through the Panama canal for another cruise. We saw the virgin trip of the Queen Mary go through the Panama canal. We had the best time. We got up early and be the last one to go to bed.
AH: What is sad about life for you?
RR: I try not to think about sad things – things I read. I only read with one eye and the glasses are so heavy because they’re magnifiers. I can’t read much longer than half an hour. The same when I play the piano. I can’t see to read the notes. So everything I play has to be in my head. But it is fun to figure out a piece. I never played by ears at home [in Pennsylvania], this [the piano] is Wanda’s. She bought it for her grandson. I said, “Wanda, will you sell me your piano?” I knew she wasn’t mind. And she said, “I’ll loan it to you. You can have it for four years, then Gregory will be out of the university.” I’ll be a hundred [laughed].
I’m still playing. I said to Sandra, “Why didn’t I buy a piano before this?” She said, “Mother, you had other things to do. You were always busy.” ‘Cause that’s when I was driving. I did something everyday.
AH: When did you stop driving?
RR: I stopped driving when I broke my back three years ago, but I didn’t sell my car. Others drive my car when we go to places.
AH: Did you miss it when you could drive?
RR: Oh yes. I was very upset that I wasn’t allowed to drive. The doctor said, “No more driving. Look at the money you can save: you could sell your car, you don’t have to buy insurance, you don’t have to buy driver license.” I said, “Money doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m just glad I have it” [laughed].
AH: Is diet important to you?
RR: I eat whatever I would like to eat. And I never shop and look at the price of anything, I was not a good shopper. But I never eat candies, or cookies, or pies and cake. I never did. I love Hersey bars and eat half of it to get energy. I don’t eat a whole meal that I get. I probably eat half. I smoked till I was 65. But it can’t be that I am healthy and my children are healthy. My sister died when she was 45, and my daughter died at 61.
AH: Do you believe in “secrets to happiness in life”?
RR: The only thing I believe in is staying happy and healthy and active.
AH: Many people cannot do that.
RR: I realize that and I feel sorry for them, but I don’t let anything get in the way. I love to shop. I bought these earrings and necklace for my birthday. My cupboards are so full. Sandra said, “If you buy something, get rid of something.” Lori, my granddaughter who went to IU and graduated last year, and I have the same size. I gave Lori all my shoes that have high-heels. I gave her all my clothes, what she doesn’t want she gives to the Goodwill. I talk on the phone with my granddaughter Lori every Monday. We’re very close.
AH: How do you deal with changes around you?
RR: I take it as they come. Where I have my hair done, across the street, is where they tattoo. Wanda said, “This isn’t a very nice place.” I said, “Wanda, you have to get with the times” [laughed].
AH: Are you one to think about the future?
RR: I really have no future. I just live day by day. I never was a thinker. I was a doer [laughed].
AH: As a doer, do you have dreams?
RR: No. I don’t think I would ever look ahead. I think I just enjoy everyday as it came [laughed].
AH: What is tomorrow like?
RR: Tomorrow I’m going to the luncheon for the Y with my neighbor who is next door. She’s still going to her aerobics.
AH: You have had a full life. People would envy you.
RR: [Laughed] A lot of people say they do. But it’s OK. I mean, when my husband died I thought, “What am I going to do? How am I going to just sit there?” And I am very comfortable – after dinner I come in to watch TV and I’m happy. I like to be quiet and alone. Maybe I’m being a hermit, I don’t know [laughed]. I enjoy being here by myself. If I get bored I get up and drum the piano a little bit. I couldn’t even do scales when I got this [piano], or reach an octave. I had a piano at home [in Pennsylvania] and I sat down and played occasionally, but not practice. I had to learn everything over, but I enjoy…[hesitant] I like figuring out a piece. I know the sound of each key. I always sang, I sang in a quartet. When I was in high school and college I sang at the dances.
AH: Is there anything in life that you wish you had done differently?
RR: I don’t think so [laughed].
I knew she would say “no” but I needed to ask for the shake of asking. She was still talking about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their study, their jobs – while I could not help thinking that this would be an interview I would never forget.
A version of this interview has been published in the Vien Dong Daily News. Online Vietnamese version here.