She and her husband finally moved to Sun City, attracted by the community and the real estate prices. But in 1991, Arnold died of a brain tumor. He was 82. Instead of following him to the grave, his 87-year-old wife continued on in excellent health, her interest in new experiences intact.
"Even at her age now, you say, 'Hey, Mom, you want to go here?' And she always says, 'I'm game.' "
"I try," the older woman agreed.
"She even flew when she was 98! She flew all by herself to Chicago." Terrian sounded proud of this. The daughter says only in the last year or so has her mother begun to need more reassurance, for example, in church when it's time for Communion. "I always say, 'What will people think! I'm going ahead of my mother!' "
"I used to lead. Now I follow." Alsten smiled. She sounded serene about the change.
They attend St. Michael's Catholic Church in Poway. A shuttle bus takes Alsten there from Beaumont Village. After Mass, Terrian, her husband, Alsten, and some friends go to breakfast, "and then we either take her home for a nap or we bring her to our house." The rest of the week, mother and daughter usually see each other several more times. When Alsten moved back to San Diego County, Terrian made her join the Diamond Gateway, a local social and philanthropic club of which Terrian is a longtime member. They play bunco every Thursday, and the two women also love to shop. "She's so meticulous about her dress," the daughter said. "And she still loves to buy clothes. She'll say, 'Oh, Marilyn, I know I don't need this. But isn't it cute!' " Every three or four weeks, they try to get out to the Barona Indian casino to play the slot machines. "That's her favorite place," according to the daughter. "But you know what she says when she goes in? 'I'm only going to lose. I don't know why I go here. I have so much fun, but I'm only going to lose.' " It's the sole time Alsten's perennial optimism evaporates, the daughter noted.
When they're not together, Alsten keeps busy. She gets the paper every morning and watches the news on TV, though she confessed that current events interest her less and less. She's never been a good sleeper, so she often rises in the middle of the night to play game after game of solitaire. She does this the old-fashioned way, with cards rather than on a computer. That's one late-20th-century invention she never could get the hang of.
"The only thing that frustrates her now is that she's put a little weight on around her tummy," the daughter said. "But the thing is, when she was in Arizona, she worked in her yard. She did her own housework." Physical activity was woven into her daily life in a way that's absent at Beaumont Village. "So the clothes get a little tighter all the time," Alsten lamented.
"She could go upstairs to exercise," Terrian said. "They have an exercise room. But she kind of forgets that."
"And then they have chair exercises. But I forget that."
"It's never really been her top priority." Always slender, Alsten never dieted, according to her daughter.
"I don't eat -- you know -- two or three pieces of pie at one meal or anything," Alsten hastened to interject.
"But she does eat one!" Terrian riposted. In fact, Terrian thinks another factor in her mother's longevity may have been her attitude toward food after her husband died. "She said, 'I find that a lot of people don't eat right when they're alone.' "
Alsten continued, "So I thought, 'Well, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to eat.' "
"At night she always made herself meat and potatoes and a vegetable and salad."
Alsten admitted to me that she sometimes worried about how long her savings would hold out. Beaumont Village was costing her $3400 a month. "But I say, 'Mother, don't even stress about it!' " Terrian jumped in. (She had wanted Alsten to live with her but yielded to her mother's desire for independence.) "When it comes to that, we'll work it out."
In the meantime, there were so many positive things to reflect on. Alsten's hearing was excellent, her handwriting strong and lovely. She didn't suffer from the arthritis that often afflicts centenarians. Aside from estrogen and thyroid pills, her only daily medication was a mild antihypertensive she started taking at 99. Of her 7 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and 7 great-great-grandchildren, several live in Southern California, so she can see them from time to time. "Moving here has been nice," she murmured. "Ending my days with my family around."
Geneva Chester, at 102, occupies a very different sort of boat. "I'm the last one of my family," she told me. She never had children. Her father was 72 when he died, her mother 75, her husband 80. Her only brother, a lifelong asthmatic, succumbed at 60, while her sister reached the age of 94. By the time of her sister's death in 1998, the two had grown apart. Chester says her sibling always lived in one place, while "I was a gadabout."
It seems symbolic that Chester now lives in a mobile home; over the years, she moved around so much. When she was 15, her father, a retired minister, transplanted his family from Aitkin, Minnesota, to Pomona, California, and then to Los Angeles. Chester graduated from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, and over the next 20 years, she became entangled with two scoundrels, one of whom she married. She didn't want to talk to me about these failed romances and froze with embarrassment when she admitted she had lived in sin with one of the men. Later she fled to Hawaii.
"I was working at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed," she informed me. "I worked for Pacific Naval Air Bases." But the Japanese attacked early on a Sunday morning, when Chester was home in Waikiki. A few years later, she had changed jobs and was helping to manage a hotel on Waikiki Beach. She recalls that she bristled whenever sailors made advances. "But a man came in one day. He strolled in with his hat cocked to one side. He stood back. He didn't even touch the counter of the desk. I thought he was pretty nice. So I asked him if he wanted me to put his name on a list to call when I had an opening. Instead of putting his name at the bottom, I put it on top. I called him, and we eventually married. And that was a good marriage. That was a beautiful marriage. We were married 42 years."