Like a lot of people who’ve moved to Florida, Magdalena Justiniano’s life was disrupted by the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico.
No, not Hurricane Maria. Remember Hurricane San Felipe? She has no trouble recalling the storm, since she was 14 when it devastated her hometown.
Recently, she turned the big 1-0-4. And, 104 years of life’s storms have made her one of Orlando's wiser and more humble residents.
She didn’t want a big deal made out of her big day. “I feel the same,” Justiniano said.
She lives at The Bridge at Orlando, an assisted-living facility near the University of Central Florida. She scoots around the halls with the help of her wheeled walker, which is lined with about a dozen stuffed animals.
Her room is spacious and bright with a kitchenette, a Bible and a Winnie the Pooh bear by the single bed — and birds. Lots of birds. Not real ones, but paintings and figurines of her favorite creatures. Justiniano prefers reading, but she keeps a TV around for a reason.
“To watch the weather so she can know whether to go out and feed the birds,” said Grisselle Lopez De Victoria, the resident care specialist who acted as Justiniano’s translator.
The first thing I wanted to know, of course, was her secret for a long life. Justiniano doesn’t drink or smoke. Never has. She has one cup of coffee every morning. But that’s not how she lived this long.
“The secret to a long life,” she said, “is when you give, you receive.” She’s done her share of that.
It began not long after her birth in 1914 in the mountain village of Laras. For a little perspective, Babe Ruth was still a month away from his Major League debut and World War I was about to break out.
Far away from all that, Justiniano was born into a family that grew to have 10 children. Like many in Laras, her father was a farmer. Families would regularly congregate, share chores and stories about their daily lives.
Justiniano amused everybody with her mischievousness. At school, she would stick chalk in an eraser so the teacher would end up scribbling all over the chalkboard when he tried to erase it.
The fun ended in sixth grade with San Felipe’s 160-mph winds. The school was destroyed, and Justiniano would never return. She worked and eventually married.
With the help of a missionary group, Justiniano and her husband moved to Chicago. He worked at Sears, and she embroidered rugs.
After sharing a few stories, Justiniano said something in Spanish to the care specialist. “She doesn’t want to take up your time,” Lopez De Victoria said.
We assured her that was not a problem. So she got out a wicker basket. “Her memories,” Lopez De Victoria said.
There were photos of the two children she and her husband adopted, their kids, their kids’ kids and even a couple of great-great grandchildren.
Justiniano carefully removed a certificate from a plastic bag. It was her high school diploma, dated July 9, 1964. She’d home-schooled herself to earn her degree at age 50.
Justiniano moved back to Puerto Rico, and her husband died in 1984. About 10 years later, friends convinced her to move to Orlando.
She stays busy these days reading, reminiscing and sewing. She’ll take a couple of small towels, stitch them together and sew on a strap to make a handbag.
“She’ll carry the bread outside for the birds,” Lopez De Victoria said.
When you’ve been around as long as Justiniano, you learn what matters. I asked her if she pays much attention to politics.
“I don’t have the time,” Justiniano said. She doesn’t get caught up in life’s little hurricanes. Before we left, Justiniano offered one more piece of advice.
“Forgive anybody who does harm to you,” she said. “If you forgive people, then you have no worries. Therefore, you have a happy life.”
Then it was lunchtime. Justiniano got up out of her rocking chair and grabbed her walker and one of her handbags. She thanked us for coming and took off down the hall.
There was a sandwich to eat and birds to feed. You’re never too old to give and receive.