Consolacion "Connie" Benemerito is grinning while she hungrily eats the fresh green salad, between spoonfuls of baked potato soup.
The soup bowl is scraped clean and only a bit of lettuce is left on the salad plate when she leans forward to answer my questions. She doesn't hear well, though we are in a quiet corner of the restaurant. Her daughter writes out my questions.
"I feel great," Benemerito says.
"I eat much and sleep more. I eat four times a day. I get up at 7:30 every morning and go to bed by 7. I don't worry. I turn it all over to God."
And every night, in clear and concise handwriting, she enters the day's activities and her musings in a journal. She also writes down her poetry, specifically her entry for my annual International Longevity Light Verse Contest.
Because Connie is the walking, talking vision of longevity.
Today, she celebrates her 104th birthday.
At least 100 friends are expected to gather Saturday, at the Buena Park home of her daughter, Gale Stoddard, to celebrate the occasion.
Benemerito has lived with Stoddard since she came to the United States in 1972, but she has friends everywhere. She's a member of the Buena Park Republican Party, the Buena Park Women's Club.
She always votes.
She tells me she reads voraciously, ranging from mystery-thrillers by the likes of Sue Grafton to biographies. She recently finished a book about Pat Nixon. And she reads the Bible and spiritual works, easily following her daughter's Scripture readings for Sunday Mass at St. Pius V Catholic Church in Buena Park, where both have been members for decades.
She has met three presidents. Their photos are on Stoddard's mantle.
She does not wear eyeglasses. Her blood pressure is a stable 120/60. She has no diabetes, joint pain or memory loss. She usually walks alone, although she will sit in her walker and let her daughter pull her places when they are in a hurry.
The Albert Einstein University Hospital is using her as a research subject on longevity. Among other areas, they are studying her diet. She does not eat red meat but primarily Filipino vegetable stew and seafood, especially tilapia and shrimp. She drinks lot of guava juice to "feed her brain."
Cellphones, she believes, "stagnate the brain." She is bewildered by children, she says, who cannot carry on conversations but spend all their time texting.
Her secret to longevity: "Live a good, God-fearing life observing the 10 Commandments. Love everybody with all your heart. Be kind and generous to others. Spend more time listening to God. Avoid TV, cellphones and time-wasting stuff. Volunteer your time for the needy. I spend hours talking and listening to God."
Once she was a pharmacist, owner of a drugstore in the Philippines. In 1972, she emigrated here, becoming a citizen five years later. Connie was sponsored by her daughter, who had married at 17 to come to Hollywood.
Gale Stoddard had dreams about being in the movies. She's an entertainer, a piano bar veteran who says she inherited altruistic tendencies from her father, a physician who treated his patients for free and also played the piano. "I inherited my mom's drive and persistence, which are badly needed in the music business," she says.
Now, "somewhere over 70," Stoddard and her cousin, Roland Valentino, are booked through 2013, performing for retirement, assisted living and nursing facilities throughout Orange County, Calif.
Life brings continuing honor and attention to these women.
On Sept. 8, Benemerito will receive an award for being herself at the Philippine Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. At the same time, Stoddard will be celebrated as one of the top influential and successful Filipino women in America.
Celebrating with them will be Stoddard's children: her daughter Leslie, an entertainer and guitarist as well as co-caregiver for Benemerito; her singer-songwriter son Greg; and Stoddard's youngest son, Anthony, a financial controller.
But right now, Connie has finished her lunch and, still full of verve, she's ready to go home to do something else. Maybe read. Maybe help her daughter make egg rolls. Maybe walk around the yard.
She slides down the half-moon booth seat toward her walker and then she pauses:
"Listen," she says to me. "God is always talking to you. Listen. Take the time."
Then she shakes hands and waves goodbye.