By Alison Mahnken
For the Courier
A star shined at MorningStar Senior Living in Littleton on a recent Saturday afternoon. Her name is Kay Lazarus, and she was the star of the show celebrating her 100th birthday.
A dozen family members, some of whom journeyed from as far as Boston, joined dozens of friends, fellow residents and staff to fete the centenarian, who turned 100 on Nov. 7.
The activities room was bedecked with sparkly star decorations, pink, white and lavendar balloons, tablecloths of lavender — Lazarus’ favorite color — and a colorful birthday banner above her seat in the center. An enormous cake — chocolate, her favorite flavor, baked especially for her by the chef — frothy pink sherbet punch, the birthday chorus, cards and cameras made for a day to remember.
As for memories, Lazarus has an endless supply. She’s known as the “trivia queen” and is nearly impossible to beat, everyone agreed.
“For one thing, I’ve lived longer than most of the people who play with me,” Lazarus explained. “Some of them don’t have good memory anyway. I happen to be blessed with a good memory, and I’ve lived through so many ups and downs. So I get all the compliments: ‘You’re so good; you’re so wonderful.’ And I love it,” she chuckled.
But she’s not a wiz in every trivia category.
“I’m not good at sports or math or science. Mostly I would say … business, history, movies, miscellaneous sometimes.”
Lazarus collects no prizes for her frequent and predictable victories in the weekly trivia showdowns at MorningStar on Tuesday afternoons — just bragging rights.
For her, it’s all about the trivia. “I don’t care for bingo or other activities. I work on Jumbles, I work on crosswords, sometimes I watch TV, I read a book.”
What type of television does a trivia master enjoy?
“Questions and answers — ‘Jeopardy.’ It happens to start just as we finish our dinner, so I get it most of the time. Sometimes I know the answers. These contestants are very bright. These are very special people. I’m not that good to be on ‘Jeopardy.’ ”
Lazarus was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1912.
“That was the year of the Titanic, 1912. So Titanic happened in April, the first major voyage,” she said. “And they thought that was a tragedy, and then I came along in November, and then they found out what a tragedy was! I always tell that story for a laugh.”
Lazarus attended Hunter College in Manhattan, majoring in languages — English, Spanish, a little French and German, and one year of Latin.
“Just as I got out of high school, 1929, that’s when the Depression started. So they weren’t building, they weren’t hiring, they weren’t doing anything. That’s when I went to work for the New York workman’s compensation department. And I was there 11 years until my daughter (Judy) was born. Then I became a stay-at-home mama,” said Lazarus.
Later, when Lazarus’ daughter was in high school and she had free time, her husband became the chief of the dental department at Central Islip Hospital on Long Island. And there was an opening for a receptionist at one of the dental clinics.
“I worked there five years. That was an age at which you could retire with a pension from the state. That was my work. I was 55, and I thought it was time that I retire.”
What stands out in her 100 years?
“I was a little girl when the World War was on. We knew the music. My sister played the music on the piano. Then the men came home, and we thought that was the end. That was the beginning of a new wonderful world. That was 1918. The 1920s were a period of prosperity, and we thought we were wonderful shape. …
“And of course then the next war started.”
Lazarus married her husband, Larry, in 1939. “And that war, my husband was an active part in it. He was in the dental corps and spent three years in the Army, a year and a half in a camp in Baltimore, and then a year and a half in India in a general hospital as a dentist.
“And when he came home, we thought, ‘Fine, now we’re OK; nothing bad can happen.’ Then came Korea.”
After attempts by her husband to begin a private dental practice were detoured by wars, he finally got an assignment at Central Islip Hospital. The secure and steady income enabled them to start a family.
“We had this lovely little girl born in 1949. We were blessed with Judy,” Lazarus said. Judy Denise is a physical therapist who lives in Littleton with her husband, Garet. In addition to weekly visits and outings with her mother, she hosted a family party, which Lazarus described as “beyond my wildest imagination,” at her home on the day Kay turned 100.
And what of vices?
“Oh, I wouldn’t tell you that,” she laughed. “I have secrets that I wouldn’t tell. Everyone has secrets that they wouldn’t tell.
“I did used to smoke,” Lazarus said. “That was my big vice. But there came a time when I realized, ‘I have to stop.’ I was having a little trouble with my breathing. Not a heavy smoker, not a chain-smoker, but I knew it was time to stop. I felt such a relief, such a sense of victory that I was able to quit. Just the fact that I was able to quit and I try to tell people that, but there’s a lot of people who are still smoking.”
Lazarus admitted that she wasn’t particularly active or athletic. “I never skated. I never rode a bike. When we were growing up, we were just glad to have devoted parents who took care of us, fed us and loved us. So most of the boys and girls did not have bikes in those days. We used to play games in the streets — ball games, hopscotch. We made up our own games.”
She continued: “I loved the water. I loved to be in the pool and at the beach. And I finally did get my legs off the bottom of the pool. We had a pool in Florida, and I swam there almost every day. My husband, he was a good swimmer. He swam a lot, better than I, and he tried to help me. We lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., for 30 years. I never mastered the butterfly or the backstroke or stuff like that,” she joked, “but I did enjoy the water. That was my main activity.”
Lazarus, who has outlived three siblings, was asked whether she thought she’d live this long. “No, I didn’t. Does anybody?”
And to the question asked of all centenarians: Is there a secret to long life?
“There’s no secret,” she said. “It’s the genes you’re born with. That’s what I’m convinced of. I didn’t take care of myself growing up; we didn’t know about the dangers of fatty foods, butter and high cholesterol.”
Larazus, who was among the first residents when MorningStar opened in 2006, is actually No. 2 in the age sweepstakes. Fellow resident Sam, who will turn 102 in March, chuckled at her party: “All of these compliments I’ve been getting — I’m going to try to live up to them. I couldn’t be that good as they tell me. Living long, looking this way, my memory. Of course my memory is not exactly as good as it was, my vision is not as good, my hearing is not as good. (But) so far I’m lucky.”
Lazarus also believes she’s been the beneficiary of good fortune.
“I have a guardian angel. I’m convinced that someone is looking after me. I’m convinced that there’s a power being good to me.”
Her advice to young people: “Don’t break a bone. Take care of yourself. Eat properly and sparingly. Don’t overdo it. Be good. Behave yourself.
“And don’t tell your secrets!”