SAN DIMAS - Being 104 years old doesn't mean Helen Tronaas has to let go of her looks.
Tronaas celebrated her birthday yesterday at Atria Rancho Park, an assisted living community for seniors in San Dimas. About 50 friends, family and staff attended her lunch celebration.
In a room decorated with 104 balloons, staff and friends brought out a birthday cake for her.
At first she said she would only have some frosting, but after she cut her second birthday cake of the day, she said she wanted a little slice.
Tronaas has told her life story many times. Right before her customary birthday interview, she was busy painting her fingernails a pretty pink.
"She's the cutest little thing," said Michelle Cobert, the senior community's engage life director. "We're just very blessed to have her here. I mean, gosh, she's 104!"
"Being dressed to the nines is important to her," said Edward Tronaas, her 80-year-old son.
Helen Tronaas moved to Baldwin Park, Calif., when she was 12 years old. She married in 1932. The day after her wedding, the banks in her area closed because of the Great Depression, Tronaas said.
Tronaas is the oldest resident at the facility. The second oldest resident, Creola Hook, 99, has been dining with Tronaas for two years.
"She's very independent. She doesn't request a lot of care at the table," Hook said. "She's very knowledgeable and could talk about any topic."
While a photographer took her photo, she asked, "What's so important about me? I'm just 104.
Then she reached for Healthwise, a Foothill Presbyterian Hospital publication. Her face adorned the cover, and a story about her centennial birthday took up two pages. Tucked inside the magazine were a few Highlander newspapers about birthdays she has celebrated since then.
Tronaas bears witness to how communication has transformed over the last century. She used to live in a home without any phones. She remembers using a "party line," where a number of people shared a single subscriber line manned by switchboard operators. Now she insists on having two cordless telephones in her studio apartment, her son said. Around her 100th birthday, she owned a fax machine; MailStation, an email device; and an answering machine.
But "technology has kind of gone off and left her at this point," her son said. Nevertheless her memory is still sharp.
She took out a black-and-white photo of herself at 7 years old and pointed to the girl standing next to her. "That's Helen Moore. M-O-O-R-E," Tronaas spelled. The two young girls were dressed in American Red Cross uniforms and stood at the center of the photo, next to two "doughboys."
At that young age, Tronaas volunteered to solicit money so World War I infantrymen could have coffee and donuts. Because Chicago was a transportation hub, soldiers would stop in before heading off to serve the country, she said. Tronaas is now a lifetime member of the American Red Cross.
Tronaas then gave an etymology lesson. "That's why we called them doughboys...because we were collecting dough (for doughnuts)," she said. As quaint as her theory is, historians disagree about the true origin of the word. One theory says the soldiers were named after their rations, doughy flour and rice concoctions.
The younger Tronaas admits his mother is sometimes very sharp and coherent, but other times her memory errs. Yet, he says he is happy to celebrate her birthday.
"It's kind of impressive. Not many people make it to 104," her son said.