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Her secret: Just keep laughing

By Kenton Robinson

Publication: The Day

Published September 27. 2010 4:00AM   Updated September 27. 2010 11:52AM
Betty Anne Caldara

Betty Anne Caldara has been a volunteer for much of her life, acting as a docent at such institutions as the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London and, most recently, the Old Lighthouse Museum in Stonington.

And she excels at telling stories about the art and artifacts therein.

But when it comes to telling stories about herself, Caldara is a reluctant docent.

"I'm fine," she says. "I'm an old lady that's lucky to have the genes I have. That's all I can say."

Is that, she is asked, as a woman of 94, the secret of her longevity? Genes?

"Well, I think so. Don't you? And I think attitude has a lot to do with it, too," she says. "I mean a positive attitude, and interesting. I said 'nosy' and somebody said, 'No, not nosy. You are just interested in everything.' And I am."

But rather than talk about that, she'd like to tell the story of the German tourists.

"Have you been to the Stonington lighthouse?" she asks. "Isn't it great? Oh, I had the loveliest time one time I was there. A young couple came in, and they had a map. I finally said, 'Can I help you find something?' They said, 'Yes, we're looking for New England.'"

She laughs uproariously.

"Isn't that marvelous? I thought that was delicious... I said, 'You're there, kids. You're there.'"

But Caldara's volunteering days are over.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I can't drive anymore. My son says, 'Mother, if anything happens ... they'd say, What's that old lady doing driving a car?' And he's right. ... Of course, I accused him of wanting the car. And he laughed.

"But I'm probably one of the better drivers that's ever driven. I can tell you that right now. But I don't drive. I miss it terribly. So that means my life has changed."

She hazards that she was a better driver than most of the "kids" on the road.

Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., she says, "I remember as a kid growing up... It was a long time ago, and there were a lot of streets that weren't paved. They were hog-backed, and what we used to do on snowy, icy days was get to those roads and jam on the brakes and see how many times we could spin around before we hit the curb.

"If your mother or father knew, you never had the car again, of course. But wasn't that fun?" She laughs. "Oh, dear."

She grew up and moved east with her husband, William Stuart Caldara, first to Buffalo, then to Greenwich and, at last, to Stonington.

As for children and grandchildren, she has her son, Hugh, and "I'm a grandmother to a dog."

She taught school while in Buffalo, "third grade. Can't do long division; can't do any more than third grade."

And then Betty Anne Caldara abruptly shifts gears.

She wants to know what happened to the woman charged with negligent homicide for running over her good friend, Nicky Trench, in February.

"We taught together once a week from 12 to 1 at the Claude Chester School, kids that are slow readers. And we each had a child.

"Anyway, she was killed walking across the street at the post office in Mystic..."

She pauses.

"We used to always go to lunch down at the - what is the name of it? - Friendly's. We always used to have a chocolate milkshake and a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich. And we'd always have Tuesdays. And the last time we were there, she said, 'Oh, don't you wish we had a little bit more?'

"And I said, 'The next time we come, let's order three and divide it.' Great idea. And the waitress just came by. And she always knew us, and she knew what to order as soon as she saw us come in.

"And Nicky saw her, and she said, 'Do you think we could have three?' She says, 'Oh sure, and we'll divide it for you.' Well, Nicky could hardly wait for the next week."

Caldara chuckles at the memory, then gives her interviewer a straight look.

"The next day she was killed."

Asked if she has a philosophy to help her get through life, Caldara says simply, "I haven't got any. I just live day to day. I live day to day and think I have a positive attitude toward things..."

And now? What does she think of the way the world is today?

"Thank God I'm not going to live to see the end," she says. "I don't know. It doesn't look too hot to me. I remember my husband saying to me, 'I thought we were going to leave a wonderful world to our children, but we sure aren't.'

"That was a long time ago, because he died in '87."

Until now, she hasn't really talked about her husband. And now, when asked, she explains that he had a weak heart. And that he had heart surgery in 1969, when heart surgery was in its infancy.

"It was just the valve; it wasn't the whole heart," she says. "It was a pig's valve. We live in a remarkable age now... I remember in the '30s when the antibiotics came in, my father, who was a surgeon, saying, 'Boy, my father wouldn't believe what this medicine does.'"

And then, almost by accident, she segues into the strange story of her husband's death.

He had been in the hospital "due to some blood problems" when friends who had a boat on Chesapeake Bay invited them down for a cruise.

"Stuart said he thought that would be wonderful, and the doctors said that would be great," Caldara says. "So we drove down, and there were 13 of us at dinner that night at the end of the dock where there was a wonderful restaurant. And before the dinner ended, Stuart turned to me and said, 'Let's go back to the boat. I'm tired.'

"We put our foot on the dock, and somebody grabbed us from the back, put a gun to Stuart's head, said, 'Make a sound, I'll kill you,' and threw us in the harbor.

"Stuart hated to swim." She laughs. "And so we looked around, and he said, 'You'll have to get up on the dock and get help.' There were no stairs, and I said, 'If you think I can shinny up those posts, you're crazy.'"

They managed to swim to a boat and grab hold of its line. There they sat in the water, yelling for help.

When people came to their rescue, they "wrapped us in blankets, thank God, because Stuart was blue by then and shaking. Took him to the hospital. He was there a week. We drove home, and he was in the hospital. That was October 3rd. And he was home for Thanksgiving, and then he died the 30th of December."

That straight look again.

"In other words," she says, "he was murdered."

They never knew why this had happened - they were not robbed - and the police never caught their attacker.

"Stuart would wake up in the middle of the night: 'What do you think that bastard wanted?' And I said, 'I'm sure it's the haves against the have-nots.' All those people with those boats tied up there on that dock, big powerboats, big sailboats. He was gonna let them know what he thought of them. What else could it have been? He didn't try for the money."

Her husband died at the age of 73.

Asked how she coped, after 46 years of marriage, Caldara says, "You just live from day to day. I remember my son saying to me, 'Now, Mother, if anyone asks you to do anything, you are to do it. Start right off.' And my son was wiser than I ever knew.

"Somebody had just come that afternoon and said, 'Tomorrow night's New Year's Eve. Come and have New Year's Eve with us.' And I thought, 'Oh my God.' And I told my son, and Hugh said, 'Mother, you're to go.'

"So I started out right away. You have to keep moving. You can't sit in a corner and suck your thumb. You just can't."

MORE

SPECIAL REPORT

Between 2000 and 2005, the population of those 85 and older grew by 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing demographics. Kenton Robinson interviewed and Abigail Pheiffer photographed some of these nonagenarians.

View the entire series at www.theday.com/90thenew70.

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