On several occasions during their nearly 60 years of marriage, Emily Velelli would tell her husband, Emmanuel, that she wished to die before him. She didn’t believe she could live after he passed on.
Nonsense, Emmanuel, who died in 1993, would staunchly tell her.
“He would say, ‘No. You’re strong. You have to stay here for the family and for the children, and you’re going to be all right,’” Emily recalled.
Emmanuel’s premonition could not have been more accurate.
Next Thursday, June 27, Velelli will turn 100. And, just as awe-inspiring as a century’s worth of living is the vast family that has sprouted in that time. Velelli is the matriarch of a clan that includes four children, 10 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and, just recently, one great-great-grandchild.
“It’s amazing to us. It’s hard for us to believe, too. … We feel very fortunate,” said Rachel Glaser, 64, Velelli’s youngest daughter. “We are also very fortunate that we have a wonderful support system around the whole family so all of us are taking part in her care and watching over her. It’s all of us who are pulling together all the time.”
Said Velelli, who has remained in the same home in the Fallstaff neighborhood for more than 50 years, “I am lucky. I have a good family.”
One could say that Velelli is lucky in more ways than one.
A native of Patras, Greece, she lived in the country with her husband and two oldest children while it was occupied by the Germans during World War II. The family was taken in and hidden by the Michaelos family until after the war.
“I feel for those people a love like I love my children,” said Velelli, who recognizes she would not be here today if not for the Michaelos’ kindness and protection.
In 1956, the Velellis moved to the United States to start a new life in Baltimore. The Velellis were one of the first families to comprise an upstart, tightknit Greek Jewish community in the city. Emmanuel worked has a bookkeeper for various companies while Emily — employed outside the home for the first time in her life — worked as a seamstress in a factory.
Both the shift to the U.S. and the jobs the Velellis undertook were moves made to give their children the opportunities to live quality lives, free of prejudice.
“The Greeks, not all of them were as nice as the ones that took care of us,” said Josephine Becker, 77, Velelli’s oldest daughter who was 7 years old when the family moved to Baltimore.
The support system, which also includes Velelli’s other children, Regina Frances, 71, and Victor Velelli, 66, has ultimately come full circle.
With her age and her condition — Velelli struggles with her eyesight and endures through arthritic pain — there are not too many options available to help her pass the day. (Until recently, she was an avid reader and knitter.) However, with such a big, loving and committed family, Velelli always has someone to keep her company, and to her, that is the greatest activity.
“My children are perfect. They don’t leave me by myself,” said Velelli, who also has a regular caretaker.
And, even approaching 100, Velelli is in great shape. Her family says her heart and lungs are doing just fine. Apart from a couple falls, she has been to the hospital only once in her life. Relying on a walker, she is able to move about the house. In fact, at 95, her doctor predicted she would live to see 100.
What’s the secret?
Velelli said she has lived a simple life. She never wanted more than she had. She also ate her fair share of homemade meals. Cooking was always one of Velelli’s passions — she never, not once, ate fast food.
On Sunday, June 23, family members from across the country — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida — will gather at Velelli’s home to celebrate her monumental day. They will also use Skype to connect with kin in Greece and Israel who are unable to make the trip.
“Many times, I cannot believe how I reached 100 years,” Velelli said. “I am satisfied with everything God gave me. Every morning, every night, I say my prayers and thank God for the good times, thank God for everything.”
David Snyder is a JT staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org