How old are you? Bernice Madigan celebrates her 115th birthday this week on July 24, 2014. Subtract your age from 115 and ponder for a moment. There is so much ahead for you.
The pictures I’ve made are mile markers in my life of photography. The people I’ve photographed are always more remarkable than the pictures. The editing process is tough because you want only the best pictures to be printed, but that means some people are left out of the magazine. These are people who’ve let me into their homes, and their lives, on the hope that their story would be told and archived in the stacks of the yellow-bordered magazine that fill homes and libraries around the world. Sometimes, the picture just didn’t measure up to the person.
For “On Beyond 100,” a feature in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic, I traveled to three countries and photographed 35 people. The story was structured around people of exceptional health near a century old. I arrived at each person’s home and we spent two or three days together. I sat with them. We walked together. We dined together. I always try to maintain a position of professional objectivity lest I forget why I am there and they misunderstand my intention. But when in California, 99-year-old Francis Zvarra baked me an apple pie. How could I not eat a slice? (The best apple pie I’ve had.) When I left 101-year-old Guissepe Romero’s home in Italy, he wouldn’t let me go without a bottle of his homemade tomato sauce—a taste of perfection. Morrell Martin was an exceptionally energetic man of 97. He lived in San Diego and was a participant in the Scripps Wellderly Study on Aging. For a time after the story, we chatted by phone. Morrell seemed to live the motto of his generation: “Always look on the bright side of life,” and he added a little dance shuffle to that for punctuation.
As a photographer, you walk into a person’s life and ask a great deal from them. You can’t expect to not give something in return, even if that is only to sit with them and to listen. 102-year-old Joe Piro lived alone. He was a World War II veteran who spent his career as a pressman not far from where he was born in Somerville, Massachusetts. The first day of our visit, I followed Joe on his walk around the neighborhood, and then we spent the rest of the time in his apartment recalling his stories about landing on the wrong beach on D-day. The next day I arrived and he said he needed a lift to the VA. How could I tell Joe that I couldn’t drive him to the VA? How could I photograph natural moments of Joe and drive at the same time? The pictures would have to wait. Joe needed a lift.
I worked on this story over a four-month period, and then I went on to the next story, which was totally different, about toxic waste sites. But the memories of supercentenarians live on and the lessons learned, advice I was given, often come to mind:
“Keep the company of those younger than you.”
“Eat a hot meal for breakfast each day.”
“Do not regret getting older. It’s a privilege denied many.”
When I arrived at the Daniels farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts, Bernice was seated, holding a heavy cloth-bound volume, reading the biography of President Ronald Reagan. She looked up and said, “I liked him. But my favorite was Eisenhower,” the 34th President of the United States. I had to stop for a moment and consider that, to have been a witness to the history that has spanned a life that began in 1899.
Hear Bernice Madigan speak about living into old age
Bernice was born in the West Springfield, Massachusetts, on July 24, 1899. In 1918, she answered President Wilson’s call for women to come to the nation’s capital to assist with World War I efforts. Bernice’s father took her to New Haven, Connecticut and put her on the Federal Express, the train line that ran between Boston and Washington. Her description of the capital lit by gaslight drew a picture that illuminated an image in my mind. “They took me for a long ride that night I arrived in Washington. I saw Washington by night. Oh, the heavens opened up you know. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bernice told me. I was captivated by her story about how the Spanish flu gripped the city. “Girls were dying all around me. We all had it. We had it bad.” Bernice stayed in Washington for 90 years where she worked in the Treasury Department. Bernice is still sharp as a whip. She’s determined to top the charts as the oldest living person in the country (Go Bernice!).
My pictures of Bernice didn’t make the cut in our published story. Imagine the disappointment. I failed her, the fifth oldest living person on record in the world. Here she is now. Happiest 115th birthday to you Bernice!
See photos from the May 2013 feature story “Beyond 100″ here.