Dorothy D’Ambrose is turning 107 on March 8. The festivities will be at the Huntington Hills Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Melville, and D’Ambrose already knows how she plans to mark the milestone, which will include cake, well-wishers and a proclamation from the Town of Huntington.
“Say hello to everybody and be nice,” she said. And also: “Play Scrabble.”
Her guests should mingle and enjoy themselves, but there is one thing they should not do, birthday or not — interrupt D’Ambrose’s midday games, which also include bingo.
Recreation therapist Sheila Thomas calls D’Ambrose the “bingo queen.” She is organizing the birthday festivities for D’Ambrose, whose daughter, Diane Joy Cangiano, will celebrate with her.
Cangiano, 76, of Melville, said she thinks one of the reasons her mother is still going strong is her attitude toward life, that she is joyful in the little things.
“She’s moderate in what she does,” Cangiano said. “She’s been through a lot of difficulties in her life, but she’s accepting of it,” her daughter added, referring to losing her father as a young child, several miscarriages and her husband’s sudden and violent death. “That relieves stress.”
Being pleasant goes a long way.
“I like to have nice words with people,” D’Ambrose said. “You make friends that way. That’s about it.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, centenarians are rare — about 1.73 persons per 10,000 reach their 100th birthday. D’Ambrose, who was born in 1911, also is part of the 80 percent in several other categories of centenarians that the census tracks — she is white, female, and was born in the United States — and like 85 percent of women over 100, she has been widowed for many years. Her longevity was noted on the “Today” show when she was 103 and in Real Simple magazine when she was 102. The proclamation that will be presented by Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci is among several the town issues annually upon request to help mark such a special occasion, said Lauren Lembo, Huntington’s public information officer.
Cangiano said cousins from Albany on her mother’s side of the family, the Spadaros, also are coming down for a visit. The festivities will continue with a family celebration on March 10. Other cousins are expected from Long Island, along with three of her four great-grandchildren and her grandsons Steven Cangiano, 53, of Lovingston, Virginia, and 49-year-old twins Michael Cangiano, of Cheshire, Connecticut, and George Cangiano, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
While she’s taking things in stride, D’Ambrose said she is happy to be celebrating her 107th year on the planet.
“I think it’s a big deal,” she said. “I just took it slow and sure. I didn’t risk anything,” she said in explaining her longevity.
D’Ambrose follows her own advice to play Scrabble and stay active, and enjoys writing poetry as well. Her schedule includes bingo three times a week, along with serious games of Boggle and a version of a “Family Feud” board game. She also attends religious services each week.
“Dorothy is very sociable,” said Thomas, of Wheatley Heights said. The facility has a group of high school volunteers they call Glamour Girls who socialize with patients, often painting residents’ fingernails while they visit, Thomas said. “They’re always so excited to see her. ‘You’re 106?’ they ask her. They can’t believe it.”
In a group, it’s sometimes hard for D’Ambrose to hear if many people are talking or if it’s noisy, Thomas said, “but she will read your lips.”
Thomas said D’Ambrose often challenges her with new words in a game of Scrabble.
“I’ve learned her brain is phenomenal,” Thomas said. “And the knowledge she has of different places — she remembers them building the Lincoln Tunnel, the whole process, and the World Trade Center going up. I want the world to celebrate her. So many times we forget the elderly. I appreciate sitting at the feet of wisdom — that’s what she means to me.”
A START IN BAY RIDGE
D’Ambrose is the youngest of five siblings, three brothers and a sister, born to immigrant parents who became citizens and raised their family in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood.
Her mother, Angelina Spadaro Mottola, trained as a midwife after she arrived from Sicily at about age 20, Cangiano said.
D’Ambrose remembers her mother heading out with her black bag to ride on the back of horse-drawn milk wagons to answer birthing calls.
“If it was nighttime, my grandfather would go with her,” she said, recounting family history. Her father, Theodore Mottola, a barber, emigrated from Naples, Italy, but died when D’Ambrose was just 13 months old.
D’Ambrose graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. That’s also where she met her husband, Michael D’Ambrose, a boy from the neighborhood whose family owned the corner drugstore she walked by on her way home from school.
Their courtship began when he invited her in for a cream soda one day and on many other days, then after a few weeks drove past her house and waved while she was on the porch. She finally invited him to sit with her, and they talked for hours. After a car ride one day, “We talked a lot and then decided to go for a walk,” she wrote in a vignette that’s printed alongside their wedding picture. “We found a bench overlooking the Statue of Liberty and sat down to continue our conversation. He held my hand, and we were together ever since. He was a wonderful man who helped everyone on the block. He would go out and get me sugar buns every Sunday morning.”
After high school, D’Ambrose did secretarial work at the New York Life Insurance Co. for several years. The company didn’t allow working women to be married then, so to get around it, as Cangiano recounts the story, “She eloped with my dad in 1934 to a justice of the peace. They took their mothers so there wouldn’t be any questions, then came home.” They later had a church ceremony on Feb. 10, 1934, and celebrated with a reception at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. They lived in the house where she grew up.
D’Ambrose also worked as a manager at Abraham & Straus and later Macy’s, and was active in the PTA when her daughter was in school. D’Ambrose lived on her own until she was almost 100, then moved to Melville with her daughter. She’s lived at Huntington Hills full time for the past 3 1⁄2 years, along with previous stays there for rehab services and at Huntington Atria.
Along with fond memories of the cream sodas and her husband, who died in 1999 at the age of 88, Christmas Eve fish dinners and ravioli are some of D’Ambrose’s favorite childhood memories.
“My mother used to make ravioli,” she recalled. “We’d put a [clean bedsheet] on the bed, and after we cut it [the ravioli] up with the roller, we’d put it on the sheet to dry first. Then we started to boil them, and we had ravioli. Christmas Eve was all fish. Some of it was good — the eels, they were good,” she said. Cannoli was her favorite dessert. “And I remember I played hopscotch with the neighborhood girls.”
D’Ambrose grew up on 67th Street in Bay Ridge in a house across the street from what is now known as the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center and was then called the Norwegian Christian Home for the Aged.
The center reprinted D’Ambrose’s letter about her 90 years as a neighbor in its spring 2003 newsletter, noting that she had grown up in its shadow. She remembered when the now-modernized skilled nursing and assisted living facility was “a little wooden house and a porch” and reminisced about being treated to krumkake, or cone-shaped cookies, as a child and wondering where the ice cream was. “Now I know, it was just a delicious cookie.” She also hosted schoolchildren on her front steps as they waved Norwegian flags during a 2002 visit to the facility by Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja.
D’Ambrose remembers her first car — “I got a car when I graduated from high school, a Ford” — and also getting her first television in the 1950s, and attending Broadway plays.
She also recalls the Great Depression. “I remember we had to wait in a long line for the food — the tickets — to redeem them,” D’Ambrose said.
Her favorite vacation was a trip she and her husband took to Italy, she said, and she also enjoyed cruises they took to the Caribbean islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and Aruba, as well as a trip to Hawaii.
“I remember my husband, they gave him a grass skirt and he was on the stage doing the hula,” she said as she laughed, motioning back and forth with her hands.
Among the childhood memories D’Ambrose treasures is running across the street to the Norwegian Christian Home to hug the lamppost and make a wish when it was lit at night.
What did she wish for?
“Maybe I wish for this,” she said, shrugging her shoulders as she spread her hands and looked around a plant-filled sitting room where she entertained guests with her daughter.
‘LADY OF THE YEAR, HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY’
Lady with your torch so bright
Inviting all each day and night
Beckoning folks from far and near
Entering America with joy or fear
Ready always with your secret key
To open doors to the land of the free
Your birthday never shall pass by
Forever to celebrate on the
Fourth of July!
— Dorothy D’Ambrose
‘SCHOOL DAY REFLECTIONS’
I returned to my childhood school one day
As a member of the PTA
As I roamed about in every section
I realized a deep affection.
The halls took on a rosy hue.
I peeked in the rooms at teachers I knew
My voice rang out, “Oh, say can you see.”
Later I was Queen of the Spelling Bee.
I came to myself at the sound of the bell.
Was this a dream or a magic spell?
I seemed to be searching for I know not what.
Perhaps something I left as a little tot.
I heard girlish laughter and skipping feet
Now assuming a rhythmic beat.
It got louder and louder and then I knew . . .
It was my heart still proud and true.
BACK TO 1911
Franklin D. Roosevelt is sworn to the New York State Senate.
Ronald Reagan is born in Tampico, Illinois.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Greenwich Village killed 146 garment workers, most of them female immigrants.
The first U.S. group insurance policy is written in Passaic, New Jersey.
Procter & Gamble debuts its Crisco shortening.
The New York Public Library is dedicated by President William Howard Taft.
Ginger Rogers is born in Independence, Missouri, as Virginia Katherine McMath.
Mahalia Jackson is born in New Orleans.
The opera “Madame Butterfly” premieres in Milan, Italy.
The painting “Mona Lisa” is stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris, and is not recovered until 1913.
The New York Giants lose the World Series (4-2) to the Philadelphia Athletics.
The first Indianapolis 500 is run and won by Ray Harroun.
Ground is broken for Fenway Park in Boston.
A Cadillac is the first automobile with an electric self start.
Chevrolet enters the automobile market to compete with Ford’s Model T.
FINANCE AND PHILANTHROPY
Industrialist Andrew Carnegie forms the Carnegie Corp. in New York.
Yale professor and archaeologist Hiram Bingham discovers Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, in the Andes mountains of Peru.
New Delhi replaces Kolkata as India’s capital city.
Polar explorer Roald Amundsen’s expedition is the first to reach the South Pole.
Sources: World History Project; The People History; On This Day