Location: Rochester, NY
Adeline Lesk was born at home in the Bronx. There was no doctor. There was not even any electricity. That is because Adeline, who goes by Addie, was born on May 19, 1919. That’s right… over one hundred years ago! She threw herself a big party last spring to celebrate her one hundredth birthday and says that having everyone come together to celebrate her was the highlight of her life. It is a life that has seen many highs and also some lows, along with unbelievable change.
“I used to think it was incredible that my mom was born in a one room hut with a dirt floor and no running water and she lived to see TV,” Addie says. “But that is nothing! Look at me!” She notes that her first apartment had kerosene lighting… “and then electricity came in and then radio then television and then computers.” Many people Addie’s age would marvel at some of the latest developments but find them baffling. Not Addy. She recently showed her grand niece how to make an Excel spread sheet and she has even taught computer coding. Addie does not yearn for an easier or simpler time. She embraces change and innovation and is very engaged in the world around her, a world that now includes eight great grandchildren.
Addie’s parents were immigrants from what is now Slovakia. Her father was a butcher, as was her uncle, and she and her two sisters and two cousins were inseparable. “We were a very close family,” Addie says. “We celebrated all of the Jewish holidays together, went to the beach and the park together on the weekends, and were in and out of each other’s houses.” She remembers her childhood as an idyllic one, and says that she was “hardly aware of how bad the depression was.”
She was very active in the YMWHA (Young Mean and Women’s Hebrew Association) that was started at the height of the immigration of Jews to the United States to teach them how to assimilate and succeed. Addie served on various boards and volunteered with many YMWHA events, which is how she met her husband, Norman. In 1940, she got marred – which was to be expected – and graduated from college – which was not. She was the first in her family to go to college. The idea was hers, but her parents were supportive. She lived at home and attended Hunter College, earning a degree in mathematical statistics. “I was good at math and wanted to be a teacher,” Addie says. “But my voice was too nasally so I was encouraged to do statistics.”
Her first job out of college was with Sears Roebuck doing statistics for their sales catalogue. Norman was an aircraft designer and was transferred to Philadelphia, and Addie was able to continue to work for Sears Roebuck in their accounting department. But once she became pregnant with her daughter Judith, who was born in 1944, she stopped working. After the war was over, Addie and Norman moved back to New York. Their second daughter, Margery, was born in 1947. Addie threw herself into motherhood and was also active in Girl Scouts, the Jewish Center (“We weren’t particularly religious,” she says, “but we thought the kids should have an education and know where they came from”), and the Parent Teacher Association at her daughters’ school.
But as the girls got older, Addie wanted to do more with her considerable intellect and free time. One of her friends had gone back to school to become a teacher and encouraged Addie to pursue the teaching career she had always wanted. Addie enrolled in a one-year teacher program at Brooklyn College and was certified to become a math teacher. It is a role she relished. She taught high school math in the NY public school system for 25 years. And the woman who was alive before computers were even invented ended up adding computer science to her teaching repertoire. “I absolutely loved teaching,” Addie says. She enjoyed connecting with her students and breaking down math concepts for them so that something they struggled with became something they could understand and master. She also loved her colleagues, many of whom were much younger than she was. “The good news about having younger friends,” Addie says, “is that many of them are still alive.”
Addie has dealt with her share of heartache. In 1950, her husband was blacklisted during the McCarthy era thanks to a petition he had signed to put a socialist on the ballot in the Bronx. He was fired from his job and given fifteen minutes to pack up and leave it. Even though he was able to find employment again, working for the next company for thirty-five years until he retired, the blacklisting devastated him. “He was full of shame about it,” Addie says. “I wanted to fight to clear his name but he just wanted to put it in the past and move on.” She also still has angst about her niece suffering brain damage and getting institutionalized following a bout with measles when she was seven years old. “Everyone was just so sad,” Addie says. “That changes you. I never got over it.”
But Addie says that one of the secrets to her longevity and equanimity is her positive outlook. “You have to learn to accept what comes your way,” she says. When her husband developed kidney disease at age ninety and opted to forego dialysis because he couldn’t bear it, Addie says she had to accept it. “I knew that the quality of his life would be such that he couldn’t enjoy it,” she says. He died shortly after announcing his decision to his wife and daughters, and Addie decided she had to be at peace with that. She misses him terribly but chooses to reflect on the long and happy life she had with him. “We always attended the theatre, concerts, museums and dance performances,” she says. They also bought a sailboat and moved to Westchester to be near the water, and later downsized to a condo in Connecticut.
“I had a wonderful husband and marriage,” she says. “I raised two wonderful daughters who are doing their own thing in the world and who care for me and about me.” And she takes great joy and pride in her four grandchildren (ages 45 to 50) and eight great grandchildren (ages 11 to 21). She sees her great grandchildren and great nieces and nephews as the hope for the future. “I love all of these demonstrations and how active young people are now,” she says. She is concerned about the state of the world right now (“It seems the moneyed people are taking over the world and turning it into something that does not benefit the majority of the population,” she says) but she hopes this next generation of activists will turn things around.
Addie moved to Rochester to be near Judith, at her daughters’ insistence, but still lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in an independent living complex. She swims several times each week and also does water aerobics and meditation. She spends her days reading (“I read every day,” she says) and is in a book club. She also runs a poetry club. Recently Addie has also taken up writing, thanks to a memory class she is taking that entails writing stories about her past. She has started emailing them to her family, all of whom relish hearing her account of what life was like in the one hundred years she has been alive. She uses a cane due to a recent fall that resulted in a broken hip, but there are otherwise few indications that she has lived over a century. And her mind is clearly making no concessions for her age.
“It was so wonderful having everyone come together to celebrate with me at my party,” Addie says. Here’s hoping there will be many more occasions to honor Addy and the remarkable life she has lived. It is enough of a feat to make it to one hundred, but to do so with Addie’s ability to embrace both the past and the present is commendable. Given that she has wisdom to spare, I hope some of it rubbed off on me during the delightful day I was able to spend with her.