Elyse Rita sat at the head of her kitchen table, surrounded by bunches of Mother's Day flowers given to her by four generations of her family, and shook her arms exasperatedly. The devilishly charming 99-year-old Tamaqua resident was recounting her birthday party, hosted for her by the hospital at which she volunteers.
"They asked, 'What do you want for your birthday?' I said doughnuts!" joked Rita.
Even at age 99, Rita said she was still nervous when she walked in to her birthday party at St. Luke's Miners Hospital in Coaldale and saw the bouquets of roses, crowds of people, and TV crew waiting to speak to her.
"My head was like this," said Rita, raising her arms in an oval high above her head.
Rita was born in Lansford on March 13, 1914 to Italian immigrants, Assunta and Florindo DeMarco. She had been born Algisa, but her name was Anglicized to Elyse by the priest of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Rita moved to Tamaqua at age 8 and if her daughter's guess is correct, she will stay there until she's 112.
The third oldest child of a family of nine, Rita left school in the sixth grade to begin working to support her family. Not long after, she met Joseph Rita, her future husband.
"When I first fell in love with (Joseph), he was waving from his porch," said Rita, who claimed she had to pass his house on the way to work, a statement that her daughter, Rita Repinec, joked is not true.
It was Joseph who got Rita a job at Atlas Powder Company, an explosives factory in Tamaqua. Sixteen-year-old Rita lost this job after management discovered she was two years too young to be legally working at the factory.
After Rita was fired, she considered going to live with her sister in Philadelphia, an idea she said upset Joseph.
"(Joseph) said, 'You're not gonna go down to Philly! It's a big city, Elyse!'" Rita recounted.
Rita did go to Philly. However, Joe came, too.
They were married in City Hall under the permission of Rita's father, much to the chagrin of Rita's mother who had told the couple, "Over my dead body."
Joseph and Elyse were married 64 years and had three children: Joseph Rita, Rita Repinec and Pat Rita. Her sons, Joseph and Pat, are both retired from the Air Force. Repinec still works and lives in the area.
Rita juggled family and her commitment as District 12 president of the Ladies Auxiliary to Veterans of Foreign Wars. She traveled to state and national conventions and the plaque proclaiming her 60+ years of service still hangs above an armchair in her living room.
Currently, she works in the cafeteria at Tamaqua Area High School. She began working for the school district after she had protested the earned income tax at a school board meeting around 25 years ago.
"If I had a job, I would pay it," she told the room. Bob Evans, school board president at the time, said to her, "We will give you a job!" and handed her an application at the end of the meeting. She has worked there ever since.
In addition to her job, Rita volunteers Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at St. Luke's Miners Hospital in Coaldale. She works mostly on the geriatrics floor, visiting each of the 40 rooms to talk to residents and water their flowers.
"Elyse, my flowers! You must have the touch they're beautiful," Rita said the residents tell her.
At the hospital, Rita leads an exercise class that includes moves such as "whirling wings," "dancing feet" and "play the piano and sing." Rita said she ends each class by singing "God Bless America" with the residents to whom she tells, "I love you. God loves you. God bless you, and God bless each other!"
"I really enjoy (the class). I tell them if it wouldn't be for you here, I wouldn't be here," said Rita.
Rita said she stays busy because she doesn't want to sit home and vegetate, adding, it makes her feel young and is better than sitting down and twiddling her fingers.
Rita's living family spans four generations and attempting to count the eight grandchildren and five great-grand children was hard for Rita and Repinec. Rita said she looks forward to Sunday dinners when the family travels to her home for pasta, hot wings, and chicken cutlets, all of which she cooks herself. Rita admitted that every Sunday, she drinks one glass of red wine with her pasta.
Rita's longevity stirs debate in her family. Her daughter said she believes Rita's long life is a result of her intact tonsils and her easy demeanor.
"She lets it all hang out," said Repinec to which Rita asked, "What does that mean?"
"When you get pissed, you curse! When you are sad, you cry," explained Repinec.
Rita claimed her secret to a long life was diet and exercise: "Olive oil, hot pepper and garlic." She advised: no smoking, no drinking more than the first glass of wine, and above all, remain active.
"You gotta move," said Rita.
Rita summed up her long life.
"Every 10 years, you find you're a little different from your old self," she said. "After a while, you learn to slow down."
She turned and addressed her daughter.
"You got 20 more years to slow down!" she told Repinec.
At age 99, Rita doesn't seem to be slowing down just yet and at her 100th birthday party, we have to hope someone gets her those doughnuts.