TOMS RIVER, NJ (Asbury Park Press) - Nancy Manno looked at her birthday cake, then looked at her granddaughter. A half-amused, half-concerned look spread across her ageless face.
“You’re not going to put 108 candles on there, are you?” she asked.
Nope. Three wax numbers did the job in safer fashion on Saturday as Manno celebrated her 108th birthday. Along with a large yellow ribbon pinned to her shirt that read “ageless wonder,” they were the only hints of her incredible longevity.
“She stops traffic wherever she goes,” granddaughter Lisa Mazurek said. “After she turned 100, people would think she was 80. They just cannot believe her age. Everyone wants to know her secret.”
So what is that secret? Manno eats lots of chocolate. She loves slot machines, singing, and watching the game show “Jeopardy!” But there’s more to it, of course.
“Live a good life,” she said. “Do what you should do, and be happy. Try to be happy all the time. If you’re not happy, then you get a sad face and you get tired and you go to bed.”
Words of wisdom from someone who was born in 1910, when William Howard Taft was president and folks were riding horses to get around. That was two years before the Titanic sank and four years before World War I began. Women couldn’t vote.
Few New Jerseyans are older. There are believed to be three supercentenarians (those 110 or older) in the Garden State: Mary Jorden of Toms River (112), Laura Oblitas of Fair Lawn (110) and Helen Turner of Linwood (110). The oldest person in the United States, as verified by the Gerontology Research Group, is 114-year-old Delphine Gibson of Pennsylvania.
Manno was born in Brooklyn and raised by a single father before settling in the Vailsburg section of Newark, where she remained until moving to Toms River in the mid-1980s. She was married to Joseph Manno for more than 60 years; he succumbed to a lengthy illness at age 95, the day after their wedding anniversary.
“He refused to die on their anniversary,” Mazurek said. “He held on until the next day.”
Nancy Manno still lives in their ranch home with the help of a full-time caregiver, who puts her to bed after Jeopardy! ("I pretend I still know the answers," Manno said). She’s mostly wheelchair-bound now but remains in good health aside from arthritis.
“I think her bloodwork is better than mine,” said Kathryn Corbet, a nurse practitioner with Visiting Physician Services who sees Manno monthly. “One of her biggest complains is, ‘My knees are bothering me.’ She says, ‘Don’t tell me it’s because they’re 107 years old.’”
She’s not up to visiting Atlantic City anymore, so Mazurek got her a two-foot slot machine for her home. She still plays cards, indulges a sweet tooth — though, as a practicing Catholic, she will give that up for Lent — and enjoys hearing from her three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
“I think I had a pretty nice life, but not extravagant,” Manno said, before pausing to reconsider her use of the past tense. “What do I mean, ‘I think I had? I have.’”
After her guests sang “Happy Birthday” on Saturday, Manno needed some help blowing out the candles. Then she sized up the gathering and fought back tears.
“I love you,” she said.