“America is the best,” said Emma DeFilippis last week, upon turning 100. “It’s given me joy and history.”
“She’s my best friend, and I love her,” said fellow senior Dorothy Zydel, who was sitting next to DeFilippis during a celebration.
DeFilippis and Alma Feinhals both turned 100 last week and celebrated at the Hudson Hills Senior Living on Bergen Turnpike.
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, Commissioner Julio Marenco, and North Bergen Freeholder Anthony Vainieri Jr. made an appearance to present the women with plaques for their milestone.
For Secaucus native Feinhals, born on Feb. 8, 1918, living to see the big 1-0-0 was more of a big deal to her son and granddaughter—who attended the celebration—than her.
“It’s the same,” Feinhals said, of her feelings about her milestone. “I don’t see any difference. I think it’s good living.”
Feinhals and her family have extensive roots in Secaucus. She raised her son in the town with late husband Edward Feinhals Sr., a Secaucus police captain.
She said Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli was once her landscaper. And she even held a grudge against former Secaucus Mayor Paul Amico for a time, because he defeated her father, Henry Flaig, to first become a Secaucus councilmember.
“I didn’t like him,” she said. “Not when he beat my father, but now I do. I think he [was] a nice man.”
Co-incidentally, Amico also lived to see his 10th decade, passing away last year at age 103.
Feinhals has lived at Hudson Hills since July 2010.
“This is my second grandmother that’s lived to 100,” said Susan Capone, Feinhals’ granddaughter, showing that longevity runs in both sides of her family. Her maternal grandmother survived to 101, though her mother passed at 65.
“It’s amazing that she remembers me,” Capone said. “She still can have a conversation with me. And it’s wonderful that she knows all of my boys, and remembers all their names and can still have a conversation with them.”
“It’s the Secaucus air that keeps her here,” son Edward Feinhals Jr. said. “It’s great to have a mother who lived to 100, and she can see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I come and see her a couple times a week.”
Keeping true to the family’s roots, Edward still lives in Secaucus, though his daughter is now a Parsippany resident.
“On this day, I feel sick,” declared DeFilippis—born on Feb. 12, 1918—when asked how she felt about turning 100. “Tomorrow, I’ll feel much, much better. Today, there’s too much going on.”
Born in Italy’s Trentino province, DeFilippis first immigrated to America via cruise in 1961, arriving in New York. She worked there, but has lived in North Bergen since arriving stateside. She moved into Hudson Hills in Oct. 2016.
DeFilippis took work as a caretaker for wealthy people and their families in the city, managing their wardrobes and any parties they held, switching families once every 10 years. She held that position until retiring at 80. Her boss was angry about seeing her go, she said.
During the ceremony, DeFilippis briefly conversed in her native Italian with North Bergen Parking Authority Director Robert Baselice.
“When she speaks, she has the same accent that my grandmother had,” Baselice, whose mother made him and his sister learn Italian, said. “My mother also. I try to speak to them in their language.”
Life doesn’t end at 100
“They have a great sense of humor,” said Hudson Hills Manager Stacey Wilbur, of Feinhals and DeFilippis. “Emma is excited because her family is coming from Italy. They’re coming to spend 12 days with her. All she wants is for them to take her into New York for dinner. That’s her thing.”
Of Feinhals, she has a “dedicated son,” Wilbur said. “She’s funny; she looks forward to him, and she’s part of the community downstairs.”
Since Hudson Hills took over the senior center from former manager Fritz Reuter Altenheim last year, the new management has focused on debunking the misconception some may have that a senior citizen center is essentially “God’s Waiting Room.”
The center has an exercise program, and a guitar player who plays around the building for the seniors.
“A lot of times, people, they come into facilities like ours, and think that because they’re here, they don’t have to live a vibrant life,” Wilbur said. “Why can’t they go to New York, if they want to, for the day? We have somebody who goes everyday—she takes the bus. That’s part of what helps with the longevity. We go to Aldi’s, and Trader Joe’s and all the stores like that. They’re part of the community.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org