I can just picture the scene in our well-worn old newsroom downtown. The city desk phone rings and rings. Finally some harried, impatient reporter picks up.
He or she briefly takes in that an L.A. resident named Pearl Berg is about to turn 100 and then — been there, done that, blasé — cuts the conversation short.
One hundred is no longer news. “Call back in 10 years,” the reporter barks.
I’m so glad one of her friends actually forgave us our jadedness and did.
Because this week I got to meet a woman who puts her birth date in the same year, 1910, that residents of Hollywood voted to make their city a part of Los Angeles. More than two years before the Titanic hit the iceberg. Four years before the start of World War I.
A woman who arrived in L.A. with her family as a young woman just a few months before the 1929 stock market crash. After a make-or-break cross-country trip from Pittsburgh that was undertaken because her father — a photographer who was selling used cars at the time — hadn’t sold a single car for a year.
I found Pearl Berg not lying checked out in a bed in a nursing home but sitting at a table in her Los Feliz living room, reading voraciously, rapidly turning pages while simultaneously eating heart-shaped chocolates from a relatively youthful 78-year-old Beverly Hills chocolatier.
I got to meet my new role model for aging, whose success in living fascinated me. I hate to say it but I think I fascinated her somewhat less.
She was so caught up in her book (“Harmony,” by Carolyn Parkhurst) that at one point she forgot that I was still there and then ever so politely apologized for doing so, insisting on sending me off when I left her with the fine chocolate she so clearly relished. (It was very generous, though I’m told she likes celery and salted popcorn even more.)
Sometimes, she shut her eyes for a bit and rested — something this nap-loving woman half her age would never dream of begrudging her — but I had no doubt that she was altogether with it. Known throughout her long life for her beautiful presentation, she insisted on going to get her hair done by Alberto Fayad, her stylist for more than 30 years, before our photographer came to take her photo.
When I mentioned to her some of the great things her younger son Robert, of Washington, D.C. — who is 79 and had a distinguished career in the fields of international development and peace — had told me about her, she looked me squarely in the eye, gave me a puckish smile and said, “Well, I’m his favorite mother.”
I watched her play multiple hands of gin rummy with Rachel Gelanga, one of her caregivers, who started out with her 14 years ago, when she had just recently given up driving and mostly just needed rides to her weekly bridge club and her twice-monthly book club.
Both those clubs slowly wasted away until there were too few members left. She outlasted them and carried on.
Life slows us all down eventually and Pearl, who will celebrate her 110th birthday on Valentine’s Day, has been slowing down in recent years. She has oxygen on hand when she needs it. She has caregivers in her home with her 24 hours a day. And she needs to rest a lot more than she used to — though she still regularly stays up until 2 a.m. beading the edges of scarves or reading — lifelong hobbies, still no eyeglasses necessary.
(I don’t bead, by the way. I can barely even sew on a button. But I read every night, well into the wee hours. I’m secretly hoping that’s the key to long life.)
When it comes to reading, by the way, Pearl’s not a slave to genre. She’ll read just about anything she can get her hands on, she told me, except if it’s really badly written. That’s always been her way, she said. Her mother used to call to her in vain and then follow with, “Pearl, get your nose out of that book.”
If reading’s not the key, what could be? Her son Alan Berg, 82, is a recently retired geriatrician in the Philadelphia suburbs, who for years made house calls to patients in the twilight of their lives. These things are not so easy to pinpoint, he told me. She’s had some health run-ins but none too serious. She wears a pacemaker. She’s always been engaged and used to talk a lot, answering questions with stories, just as he now does, he says.
She spent her years not out making a name for herself but in support of her late husband and her two sons, and her broader brood of relatives and friends.
But in so doing, she wove around herself a rich fabric of community that has also supported her. And while I’m no expert — and even the experts aren’t absolutely sure what makes some people live so much longer than most of us — I have to believe that her connection to others has helped her stay so connected to life.
Human beings are living longer these days. That much is not news. But while more people make it to 100, those who make it a whole lot further remain relatively rare.
When I called the U.S. Census Bureau, I was told that because there are so few of them in America, the bureau suppresses the data to protect their privacy.
Generous estimates put the number of supercentenarians who have lived to 110 or longer at somewhere around 1,000 of about 7.8 billion humans worldwide. The Gerontology Research Group, based in Newport Beach, which is generally considered the authority on the oldest of the old, requires serious documentation to verify.
Robert Young, who directs the GRG’s supercentenarian research, told me he believes the number is rising rapidly. In 2004, the group estimated about 450 supercentenarians worldwide.
The oldest verified human at the moment, he told me, is Kane Tanaka, 117, of Japan. The oldest living American is Hester Ford, 114, of North Carolina. Minnie Whicker, 113, of Roseville currently is the oldest Californian — one of about 10 supercentenarians in the state and about 100 in the country if you count both the officially verified and those who aren’t faking it but don’t have all the documentation the GRG requires.
But back to Pearl, whose birth date has not been officially verified by the GRG but who interests me more than any statistic or list.
At Temple Israel, this woman who has outlived her husband, Mark, by more than three decades, used to be the go-to person at the synagogue when it came to writing letters, especially to grieving members of the congregation.
She still writes thank-you notes to those who visit her, in beautiful cursive writing and equally beautiful prose. I managed to sneak a peek at one just before it got mailed this week.
It told me all I needed to know, and confirmed her in her role as what I want to be when I grow up.
“I thank my lucky stars — and when I say lucky stars, I mean it,” she wrote to longtime friends. “Every day in every way — I get better and better. Just stay with me so I can celebrate every moment.”