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At 108, Harwich woman celebrates a life lived for family

Cape Cod Times


Oct. 05--BREWSTER -- Flora Massa turns 108 today. She was born when the Boston Nationals, sometimes known as the Boston Doves, were the baseball team, horses and wagons were the mode of transport, and a world war had yet to occur.

She has outlived family and friends, and the world has changed immeasurably.

"She's one of those people that are very resilient. I guess you would call her a survivor," said her daughter, Louise Massa, 67, who lives in Harwich.

Dr. Thomas Perls, a geriatrician and director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, has another name for those who live past 100.

"She's an 'escaper,'" he said. That is a term coined for those who have escaped the age-related diseases and disabilities that afflict, and ultimately kill, many of us before we reach life expectancy, currently projected by the World Health Organization as 76.5 for a man in the U.S. and 81 for a woman. Good life habits when it comes to exercise, drinking, eating and smoking, and about 20 percent genetics, can get us to 90. But after that, the scale tilts toward genetics. Beyond 105, Perls' research shows, survival is 70 percent related to one's genetic makeup.

"It's not one powerful gene, but many genes with modest effects. In the right combination it can have a very strong effect," Perls said. It's like hitting the lottery, he said. Having a few numbers match is negligible, but when they all line up, it's a jackpot.

Perls is also participating in another long-running study, the Long Life Family Study. One in 250,000 live to be 105, he said, and only one in 5 million live to 110, known as a supercentenarian. The oldest documented living person was Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 in Arles, France, at 122 years, 164 days.

"(Centenarians) tend not to be lonely. They are gregarious people, and people find their ages so remarkable that they are kind of social magnets," Perls said.

Massa has been a resident at the Pleasant Bay Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Brewster for the past decade. She was anything but lonely Wednesday as she celebrated her birthday a day early with a singalong with other residents, tapping a foot and occasionally singing, a big sunflower pinned to her sweater. She is the oldest of a dozen centenarians at Pleasant Bay, said executive director Joshua Zuckerman, and he agreed with Perls that most of them do tend to be social people, but the key factor in happiness is family involvement.

Louise Massa visits her mother almost every day and said her mother lived for her family.

Born in Boston to Italian immigrants on Oct. 5, 1909, she was not a history-maker. Her one brush with the famous came on a trip to Boston, when she was 8 or 9, to a parade marking the end of World War I. She walked up to Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing and petted his horse, Kidron.

She contracted scarlet fever and was quarantined in Boston, but ended up looking after some of the other children who were there with her, Louise Massa recalled. "She loved to take care of other people's kids, nieces, nephews, some of her cousins, she was put in charge of them. She was a responsible person."

Working as an executive secretary for Jordan Marsh at Boston's Downtown Crossing, Massa (her maiden name, Costello, was an Americanized version of the Italian name Castelli) loved to dance and was in the chorus line at company shows. She still shows off her kicks even from her wheelchair.

Flo Massa grew up living in the double- and triple-deckers in Dorchester with her extended family on the other floors. She was married late in life for those times, at age 35 in 1944, to Charles Massa, 10 years her senior, whom she met through his sister, who also worked at Jordan's. He worked at Western Electric, and they had two children, Louise and a brother who died in an accident when he was young.

"The most she got out of life was being with her family. That made her happy," Louise said. That was especially true of her cousins, all about the same age, who were her frequent companions as girls.

"For all the troubles they went through, they always had laughs. There was always some kind of craziness going on."

The family moved to Milford and vacationed in Dennis. Charles Massa died in 1971, nearly a half-century ago, and Flora eventually joined her daughter and son-in-law on the Cape.

Louise inherited that love of family.

"She would always tell me a lot of stories about her parents, about what they would say and do, and what it was like in the old country," Louise Massa said.

Even though her mother never had the desire to go to Italy, Louise retraced the voyage her grandparents took, back to Calabria.

"Her parents were farmers, working out in the fields. She inherited some good genes," Louise said.

That likely will be passed on, Perls said.

"When they're walking down the street with their 102-year-old parent," Perls responded when asked about any outward signs projecting a long life.

"That ends up being a good indication to me," he said.

-- Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter: @dougfrasercct.


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