TAMPA — In 97 years, Elena Oliva was never ill. She never went to the hospital, except once, to have a baby. Her family said she had no tricks to longevity, no one-a-day food habits, no superstitions.
She simply lived a sweet, generous existence.
"My mom always had people at our table," said her daughter, Aileen Martino.
Mrs. Oliva died peacefully Wednesday at home. It was old age, her daughter said. She had been in a wheelchair for five years, but she still joked that she snuck out dancing while the family was away.
She was born in Ybor City in 1911, the oldest of three children. Her parents were Spanish immigrants who lived modestly. Her father operated small cigar-rolling business from the back of the family home on 12th Street.
Young Elena was studious, intelligent and very shy. She graduated as salutatorian from Hillsborough High School, but college wasn't financially possible. After high school, she rode the trolley car to her daily job at an insurance company and handed her pay to her parents, who saved it so her brother and sister could go to college and have what she couldn't.
She stayed single into her 30s, working and traveling. Then one day, family friend and famed cigar maker Angel Oliva brought his brother, Marcelino Oliva, to the house. Marcelino was a Cuban immigrant, recently widowed with three children. Tall, black hair, widow's peak. He looked like Rudolph Valentino.
"He walked through the house and she said, 'Oh my gosh, who is that?' " said her daughter. "It was sort of love at first sight."
After marrying, they had Martino. Mrs. Oliva loved caring for her daughter and stepchildren. She ironed their shirts each day and sewed doll dresses to match their clothes. The family routinely welcomed Cuban refugees into their home, and Mrs. Oliva tutored them in English.
Every Christmas Eve, they hosted a traditional Noche Buena feast for everyone they knew. Mrs. Oliva made beans, rice, yucca and a sour orange and garlic compote for her husband, who slathered it on seven whole pigs. They played Cuban music and danced through the night.
"My father was the dancer of the family," said Martino. "She was always more shy and didn't like to be the center of attention, but she was a very good sport, and he drew her out."
After he died in 1972, she never remarried. She spent her time babysitting her grandchildren and doing needlepoint. And each year, though it was never quite the same, she celebrated Noche Buena and watched the people dance.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.