23 June 2003

Centenarians galore

Some of us may have seen this story at the weekend: "World's Fair Baby relished her role in history." It's about a woman named Louisiana Purchase O'Leary Wampler, who just died at age 100. She was born on the grounds of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis while it was being built. She became a bit of a celebrity at the time because of this.

Is it my imagination or are there more people living past 100 these days? Bob Hope just turned 100 a few weeks ago. And although the Queen Mum is now gone, having died last year at age 101, her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, the dowager Duchess of Gloucester (whom I saw at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 1975), turns 102 in December. Then there's Jeanne Louise Calment, the Frenchwoman who was born in 1875, knew Vincent Van Gogh, and died as recently as 1997. Finally there's Charlie Smith, ex-slave, who was apparently born around 1842 in west Africa, brought (illegally) to the US in 1855 and died in 1979 at age 137.

There are at least two probable centenarians among my ancestors. My 3rd great-grandmother, Priita Moilanen, was born in Finland in 1822 and died in 1926 at age 104. Then there's my great-grandfather, George Koyzis, who is reputed to have lived between 110 and 118 years in Cyprus.

I suppose we're all fascinated on some level by centenarians, mostly because we wonder what they have done to live so long and whether there's any way we can replicate this for ourselves. The trouble with centenarians, however, is that they tend to be singular, even among their own blood relatives. They tend to outlive several spouses and even their own children, whose lifespans tend to be of more normal length. I don't find that an attractive prospect. If I thought everyone I loved would go on living along with me, I might think differently about living past 100.

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