Elaine Saba’s eyes have seen a lot of living.
She was born in Jerusalem in 1913, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. On Monday, some of her considerable progeny threw her a 104th birthday party at the Brookdale Naples senior living facility that has been her home for many years. Five family members and spouses joined with a dozen residents in the memory care unit at Brookdale, along with Brookdale staffers led by Brookdale program coordinator Regina Caman.
The group sat, with the residents in wheelchairs or with their walkers nearby, as Saba’s descendants took turns saying a few words about their “Teta,” Arabic for grandmother, which is what they’ve always called her. Then the whole group participated in some simple games devised by Caman. Saying nothing, Saba watched the activities, with her thoughts locked up inside her due to dementia.
Organizing the festivities were two of Saba’s granddaughters – Laura Saba Berman, who lives in Naples, and Lorraine Saba Pendleton, who calls New Orleans home. Their cousin, George Doddridge, drove over from Ft. Lauderdale for the occasion.
Some of Saba’s grandchildren are old enough to have grandchildren of their own, which is one of those things that happens when one lives for more than a century.
Another is that none of one’s contemporaries are still living; Saba had five children, four of whom have died, predeceasing her. Her husband, whom the grandchildren called Cedo, died nearly 40 years ago. The two originally spoke only Arabic, and while Saba learned English, as she grew older she would sometimes switch between English and Arabic mid-sentence, her granddaughters said.
The couple came to the U.S. on a boat from Italy in 1951, and settled in McLean, Va. and the Maryland suburbs, always in the D.C. area. While Cedo worked supervising the mailroom for a trade association, Teta stayed home caring for the five children, who clearly adored her. Speaking about her, the thing the grandchildren remember the most from their childhood was her talent in the kitchen.
“Her favorite thing was cooking, particularly Middle Eastern food,” Pendleton said. “She can make baklava like you wouldn’t believe.”
Knitting, Berman said, is another activity she loves, making warm clothes for the seemingly endless string of additions to the family, including: five children; nine grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and now includes a fifth generation with four great-great-grandchildren living around the country.
Along with the cupcakes and sandwiches, what really got the memory unit residents animated was a game Caman initiated after cueing up a rousing tune on the boombox; sitting in a row, the residents were given colorful pool noodles and used them to sweep or bat away a multitude of balloons.
Elaine Saba’s grandchildren, more mobile but equally engaged, picked up brooms and batted the balloons back. No matter what Saba would remember the next day, she seemed to be having a good time in the moment, and her family members traveling long distances to help her celebrate her 104th birthday points to a lifetime of love and family caring.