Balloons tied to floral centerpieces adorned the rows of tables set up in the East Meadow Senior Center’s all-purpose room in preparation for a resident’s birthday celebration on Nov. 30.
This particular birthday marked a milestone for the center: Its oldest member, Mollie Spiegel, had been presented with a certificate of honor from the Town of Hempstead, congratulating her on her 105th birthday this year.
“Well, it’s technically her 106th birthday,” her son, Burt Spiegel, 72, said. According to Burt, his mother immigrated to the U.S. from a small village near Kiev, Ukraine, in 1911 with her mother and two sisters. Her actual birth date, Nov. 25, 1910, was changed to Nov. 25, 1911 “…so she could go to school with other kids her age at the time,” Burt said.
Helen Paladonia, the Senior Center’s coordinator, and Phyllis Caggiano, its president, said that although Mollie was registered as turning 105 on Nov. 25, they celebrated her 106th birthday “… because that’s her true age.”
“We actually started celebrating her birthdays when she turned 100,” Paladonia said. “Mollie has always been an essential part of the Senior Center, and we celebrate her because she used to show the same love and excitement towards everyone else.”
In fact, Spiegel served as president of the center for more than 30 years.
“She used to be sassy,” Caggiano laughed.
“She was a giving and warm person,” Paladonia added. “But strict.”
Staff and residents mingled as a DJ played a mix of jazz and classic chart-topping hits. Caggiano wheeled out two cakes and a cart filled with bowls of ice cream as Spiegel’s family placed gifts on a table beside her. She took a bite of cake.
“Physically, she’s here with us,” Burt said. “But mentally, she’s not 100 percent there, which is understandable. We’re just very, very happy to spend time with her.”
Her son-in-law, Ray Ronco, 84, said that Spiegel had outlived not only her husband, Joseph, but also both of their daughters. “She’s going to outlive us all,” he laughed.
Ronco added that Siegel was warm and welcoming by nature. “She used to invite 10 to 20 people over for the Hanukkah celebration in her small, tiny New York apartment,” he reminisced. “Whenever anyone came knocking, she welcomed them in and fed them. And boy, her food was delicious.”
Spiegel’s granddaughter, Donna, said her passion for cooking was evident. “She always loved food,” Donna said. “Look, she’s eating cake. She just can’t say no to sweets.”
Although Spiegel didn’t say a word throughout the celebration, her family and friends shared memories with one another, loud enough for her to hear.
“I used to always say ‘Merry Christmas’ around the holidays,” Caggiano recalled. She put her arms above her head and added, “And every time I said it, Mollie would wave her hands up in the air and say, ‘What about me?’ So after that I always said ‘Happy Hanukkah’ first, because she never let me finish wishing everyone a Merry Christmas first.”
Paladonia said that Spiegel would often walk one resident back to her complex to ensure her safety. “She would say to this resident, ‘What are you doing walking around alone?’” Paladonia recounted. “The woman was 15 years younger than Mollie. And she still walked her home because she wanted her to get back safe.”
“Look, Grandma’s awake,” Donna said. “Let’s open her presents.”
Ronco, Burt and Caggiano rushed to Spiegel’s side to open a silver box that contained a soft, white blanket, which Burt put on her lap. “To keep you warm,” he said.
The family crowded around her to take photos, and Donna appeared to revel in the joy for a few seconds. Finally she said, “It’s kind of sad, because this could be the last birthday we celebrate with her.
“She’s a person whose life should be celebrated,” Ronco added. “We all love her very much.”