Erma Gibson began her 105th birthday with a hair appointment.
"Not much to work with,'' she said as Jen Uselton ran her fingers through thin gray hair.
"Are you kidding, Miss Erma?'' the beautician responded with appropriate honorific and respect. "You have natural curls.''
The salon is but a short stroll down the hallway at Atria Baypoint Village, an assisted care facility at Bayonet Point where Miss Erma has lived the last 10 years. Employees treat her like royalty and had been looking forward to celebrating her special day — Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. They serve 220 residents, including a few centenarians. But none come close to Miss Erma in duration, or for that matter, sense of humor.
"It's amazing to me that I'm this old,'' she said in a voice stronger than you might imagine. "When I turned 100, I thought that was it. I prepared to die. But I'm still going strong. I think it's because I'm so mean.''
The young fellow across the hall would take issue with that. "She has more personality than anybody in this place,'' offered Leonard Smith, 80. "You talk to her and she just makes you feel better. She's the best neighbor anybody could have.''
Smith brings her flowers. It doesn't have to be a special occasion. "Every day with Erma is a special occasion,'' he said during a noon birthday party catered in a private dining room with roses, china and crystal. Miss Erma, her hair perfectly coiffed and topped with a tiara, sat at the head of the table, sipping her favorite mushroom soup with a silver spoon. Next course: chicken marsala followed by a homemade apple pie Atria instructor Kathleen Kienbaum baked the night before by special request.
Ever since Miss Erma turned 100, her friends Wayne and Pam Coulter have planned a party. He has been her lawyer for years and Pam, a former School Board member, enjoys regular visits, admiring her intelligence and knowledge of current events.
For instance: "Obama has been a bit of a disappointment,'' said Miss Erma, a lifelong Democrat who first voted in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover. "But then the Republicans in Congress haven't been willing to give him a chance. That burns me up.''
In her room she reads novels and on a tiny television watches classic movies, Catholic church services and, in season, Tampa Bay Rays baseball games. "I love the Rays,'' she said.
She enjoys relatively good health, taking only a few pills and drops for dry eyes. But lately her legs have been aching, probably the byproduct of a serious fall she suffered when 93. Suzanne Dallefeld, an Atria instructor, suggested some exercises and Miss Erma does them religiously. She intends soon to resume her daily walks around the complex where she seldom misses bingo and other games.
"I'm not one to sit around doing nothing,'' she said.
Erma was the first of six children born to Irma and John Jakubec, who emigrated from Germany and settled in Youngstown, Ohio. John worked as a civil engineer in a factory. They spoke three languages and valued education. Erma learned shorthand and typing, skills that helped her land a job in a bank until it closed with the stock market crash of 1929. She moved to Detroit to live with relatives and eventually found work as a bookkeeper with a company that decorated buildings. She married Audie Gibson, a General Motors worker who later served in the Air Force in Italy during World War II.
The couple had no children. When Audie retired from GM, they moved to Tarpon Springs. Two years later, he died suddenly at home at age 63. Erma moved into a condo in New Port Richey and became property manager and treasurer of the board for several years. She traveled around the world with a group of church women and never again had a serious romance.
"I'm too independent,'' she explained.
She's not sure why she has lived so long, when the average American's life span is 77. Her mother lived 99 years, but no other family member even came close. Miss Erma saved and invested money wisely, but if she has one fear these days, it's that she might run out of money.
"I feel like I have enough for one more year,'' she said. "Then I'll be out on the streets.''
She offered a theory on her longevity.
"No jealousy,'' she said. "I have never resented anybody. And I get angry sometimes, but not for long. It's best to let it go.''
• • •
A personal note here, please.
I'm cruising toward Medicare age, surrounded in a newsroom by a bunch of kids who probably think of me as "Gramps.'' After spending a few hours with Miss Erma, she asked me my age.
"Sixty-four?'' she said. "You're just getting started.''
I left smiling.