Meeting the Supercentenarians
Besse Cooper, 116
Meeting Besse Cooper was definitely a big moment in my life. I remember feeling very nervous. It’s always a sensitive situation to go into someone’s home, meet their family, see where they sleep, and then ask personal questions about their life. When you’re about to enter into that experience with the World’s Oldest Person, there’s certainly a heavier weight to the matter. I tried to be invisible during that first visit, too shy to get in close and speak loudly near her delicate face. But on a film shoot, when you’re not great with a camera, you generally fall into the interviewer role. I crouched down beside her, leaned in, and failed miserably. After several attempts, my voice wasn’t getter any lower or louder. But the light in her eyes and soft smile on her face let me know she was happy to see me.
Meeting Besse started out very chaotic. She was the second Supercentenarian we got to meet and by this time, I knew Walter pretty well. He was in a retirement home where you pretty much take care of yourself with some assistance. Besse, on the other hand, was in a nursing home with full time care. Because she was getting awarded the Guinness World Record for oldest living person, there was a bunch of media trying to get inside her room. Her grandson Paul Cooper and some of her family were very careful about who was taking advantage of the situation. Fortunately, Paul took a liking to Sarah and I and realized we were interested in getting to know Besse and her family. We wanted to tell the real story and not just the cheesy sound bytes. Over three visits, we got to know what an incredible woman she was. What always will stick with me was her ability to sense what was going on (she didn’t talk too much) and to exhibit perfect dignity. After all the media left and only Paul Cooper, Robert Young (the Guinness Consultant on Age), Sarah, and I remained, she opened up and began talking with Paul and Sarah. I’ll also never forget her bookshelf filled with books enclosing lessons of positivity.
Juana Bautista de Candelaria Rodriguez, 126
The journey to meet Juana was two-fold: while her age is not verified, at 126 she was the oldest person on our filming schedule but also, we’d have to go to Cuba to meet her. With a bit of research and some paperwork, we arranged our visit, legally. We spent the better part of the morning trying to find her. In Cuba, you don’t whip out your phone and pull up GPS. Juana’s home is in a tiny village called Ceiba Hueca. It’s peaceful and the air smells fresh. Juana is particularly calm, wearing a bright blue housedress and barrettes in her white hair. She smiles serenely from a wooden rocking chair. Children run and play while grown ups cook, talk, and sit happily on the front porch. Skinny chickens and tiny pigs run around, burlap sacks stuffed with mangoes and yucca lean against the earthen walls of the house.
Meeting Juana was pretty incredible. It’s one of those moments where your internal values and understanding of life begins a paradox shift. I guess this never begins; I think it’s most likely a process of growing, but it’s definitely amplified at times. Juana, her family, and nearby villages were so far from what we know. I’ve spent a bit of time traveling in developing nations, so I knew what to expect. But these people through years of sanctions have been forced to live a more organic life than us. It was incredible to experience the cohesion their family had and the smiles that seemed more genuine than possible. As you might expect, her grand children and great grand children seemed to long for the promise of what is headed their way; a country that celebrates more freedoms by sacrificing some of the freedoms they already have. I think watching Juana on her rocker surrounded by the love of her family with chickens weaving among all our feet will always stick with me.
Mary Tankursley, 110
Getting ready the morning I was to meet Mary Tankursley felt a bit like getting ready for church or a job interview. For whatever reason, I wanted to look pulled together for her. Must have been something about being in Texas. Sitting in the living room with Mary and her daughters put me instantly at ease. All three women had glowing smiles and infectious laughs. My whole being was happy and optimistic for days after meeting them.
I loved watching Sarah interact with Mary. There was a real connection and this was special because Sarah researched Mary a lot and discovered her in the first place. Mary had just joined the ranks of a Supercentenarian (turning 110) and I noticed that she really just absorbed all of the time we had together. Mary listened so much to all of us and it makes me think we should really all try to listen more. She also had a few good stories she’d share here and there, which allowed her to relive a special moment in her life. Make stories, enjoy them when they happen and always tell them later.
Ruth Anderson, 111
When I heard that the oldest singleton twin was just a few hours away from my apartment in St. Paul, MN, I was shocked. The whole time Hunter and I had been working on the film, I never knew that Ruth was so close. The most impressive thing about Ruth was, hands down, her Scrabble skills. She played often and so well that she had a special game board with a certificate from Milton Bradley. Clearly, this brain game had helped Ruth’s memory. She remembered so many great stories about growing up and kept us laughing until lunchtime.
When I learned about Ruth, I called my twin sister, Gannon, and told her that I was going to try to meet the oldest twin in the world and I thought it would be cool if she could be there. That never panned out and when I met Ruth I really didn’t get to talk to her about being a twin because her twin died when he was only one. She was amazing, though. I was so fascinated with her Swedish background. She talked about growing up in a small farm town in Minnesota where everyone had immigrated there recently. It’s wild to imagine the layers of people over time from all over the world creating our country. Also, lighting her Christmas tree with candles was special to imagine.
Sister Cecilia Gaudette, 109
My first visit to Europe included a few days in Rome, Italy. It was a delicious trip capped off with a delightful meeting with Sister Cecilia. A New Hampshire native, Sister Cecilia had been at her convent in Italy for over 50 years. Simply being in her presence brought me total peace and happiness. She smiled endlessly and exuded such warmth she charmed everyone around her. If she’d had more time in her schedule I would have stayed with her longer.
I feel as though Sister Cecilia never stopped smiling with us. She really loved having us there and was fascinated by all things. Telling us stories of the past and how she had lived in Italy for 53 years was pretty special. She was busy in her church and still active with the community. Being in the convent was exciting for me because I haven’t spent much time in that kind of place. It felt wholesome and loving, and I liked thinking of how community is so important to all of us and our longevity. We have to feel as though we belong.
Walter Breuning, 114
Walter Breuning was full of great advice. He happily shared stories from his childhood, major news events that changed the world, and heartwarming anecdotes about charitable activities. He worked hard his entire life and helped people in need whether they were neighbors or sick children at Shriner’s Hospital. Walter stressed the importance of taking care of your mind, body, and always helping others. It’s easy advice that goes a long way.
When I first met Walter, I was filming him walking towards the chair I was going to interview him in. He was 113 and cruising over, aided by a walker. When he turned to sit in the chair, he misjudged it and almost fell to the floor. (Sarah won’t let me release this video.) But this moment shook me up more than it did him. He was the first Supercentenarian I met and I can remember how nervous I was. I felt like they were super delicate, but as I got to know Walter and the others, I realized they all have their own inner strength in addition to some striking wisdom. Walter got right up and into his chair (with a little help from a nearby employee). When the nurse came over to check his vitals, he shooed them away and insisted on doing the interview with me. I relaxed and was mesmerized by Walter’s words. That one-hour changed me, opened a part of my soul that hadn’t been explored, and made me yearn for more. We have so much to learn from people like Walter.