Florence Hasegawa sits in her chair like a life-wizened general, barking orders to family and friends. Like any good general, she has a lot of loyal followers—811 to be exact, as of this writing, from all corners of the globe. Those followers have found her on Twitter, the ubiquitous micro-blogging site that allows users to post short messages (140 characters or less) about whatever’s on their mind. For Grandma Florence, as she is known on Twitter, that means ruminations on everything from family to food to whether she fears death (she doesn’t).
To call Grandma Florence old would be unfair. Instead, she’s rich in years: 101 of them.
Florence Hasegawa was born to Japanese immigrants on May 20, 1908, in Lahaina. After receiving a grade-school education at Kamehameha III, she went on to become a marriage license agent for Maui County’s Department of Health in the early 1930s. She continued in that line of work for 70 years, finally retiring in December of last year, at age 100. She has been affectionately referred to as “the oldest marriage licensor in America.”
Florence officiated thousands of licenses. She issued licenses to celebrities, athletes, announcers and doctors, including one who prescribed her a cocktail of raisins, gin and water for her arthritis. Six years ago, she even issued a license to Maui Time’s own Tommy and Jen Russo. (Her blunt speech has on occasion sent people storming out, after she asked how many times they had been married before.)
You would think someone who has helped so many people get married would be at least somewhat interested in romance. After surviving two husbands, Florence doesn’t even want to think about dating. “My second husband died in 1972. I don’t want any man sitting on my couch waiting for me to cook him his next meal,” she says.
When I try to ask Florence about Maui of old, I’m rebuffed with, “No, no, no! I don’t care about that! Of course, Maui has changed. Lahaina used to be small. Now…I don’t want to talk about changes, I’m too old to get involved.” Instead, she focuses on the present. Like today’s troubling economic recession, summed up in a certain cable company ad. “Every day, the same thing. A woman crying, everyday! A man…almost crying! I don’t like that!” Current events, like the Maui Marathon, don’t faze her. “If people want to run from Wailuku to Lahaina, that’s all right. Good exercise.”
Of course, any time someone reaches triple digits, people want to know the secret to their longevity. For Florence, it could be her diet. Staples include oatmeal, bananas, papayas, mangos and green tea. Favorite foods include sushi and her grandson’s (James “Kimo” Masumoto) green papaya soup. She avoids foods with added sugar, and opts to use stevia as a substitute. She also takes lots of multi-viatmins and supplements and refuses medication, except for in the rare instance of illness.
She also stays mentally active, writing daily in her journal and reading extensively (cookbooks, the Bible and the dictionary top her list). She gets up in the morning, feeds herself, does chores, eats and around 3pm, takes a nap. Around 6pm, she wakes, makes dinner, and then watches a little TV (favorite shows include the Food Network, Animal Planet’s Animal Police and samurai shows on KIKU). According to her Twitter feed, she goes to bed promptly at 10pm.
This routine is kept like clockwork, to the point where neighbors know to check on her if the lights go off-schedule.
Whatever the secret to her longevity is, Florence isn’t telling. “I don’t care about that,” she says.
Florence is thoroughly candid about death. “I think I’m dying already,” she playfully quips. “Sometimes, my head just blanks. I have headaches.” (If headaches and blanking out are sure signs of dying, then a majority of the population is in trouble.) She has survived many of her close friends, her doctor and even some of her children and grandchildren. She plans to be cremated, and have her ashes, along with the ashes of her loved ones, combined and scattered in the ocean. If she misses her youth, she doesn’t show it. “I don’t want to be young anymore,” she says. “I don’t mind dying. My friends are all gone. My husband George. They’re in Heaven, waiting for me. I’m just waiting for God to call me home.”
When teasingly asked by a family member, “Does God have your phone number?”, Florence, still sharp as a tack, responds sternly: “No! God doesn’t need a telephone.”
Florence lives alone in the same Lahaina home she’s occupied since 1940. She scoffs at her family’s attempts to change this. “They want to send me to Hale Makua! I don’t want that,” she says. When asked if she would live with her youngest daughter, playwright/poet Pat Masumoto, she deadpans a reply: “I want to stay right here.”
Instead, she receives assistance from friends, family and neighbors. Neighbors Luz and Evelyn help with groceries, household tasks and check on her from time to time. Grandson Kimo often visits to make home repairs. Pat and partner Jeff visit at least once a week, sometimes just to talk story. Of course, Florence has something to say about this. “I don’t like people visiting me all the time,” she says. “But if someone calls me [on the phone], calls me, calls me, calls me many times, and I don’t answer, maybe I’m dead. Have someone check on me.”
She frequents the Lahaina Senior Center, and is brought Meals on Wheels on weekdays. She appreciates the service, but not all the food they bring. “When they have salad, it’s too tough to chew,” she says.
Florence was first introduced to the Internet when she asked Pat to do research on vitamins. Later, Pat helped her create a Twitter account. Pat posts messages from Florence’s journal or that Florence dictates to her. It was on Twitter that Florence met Ivy Bean, a woman three years her senior. Ask about Ivy now, Pat laughs and whispers, “Mom got bored with her.” Florence regularly tweets about her day-to-day life, including the plight of some birds that visit her sometimes, a saga that ends in disappointment. “They all flew away! They’re not coming back!”
Florence is nonchalant about her growing celebrity. She’s been featured in numerous articles, and her list of followers grows almost daily. “People can do whatever they want,” she says. When pressed on the issue and reminded that she has inspired people all over the world, she shrugs it off. “It’s up to them what they do.”
Florence Hasegawa is definitely not the quiet little grandmother, dispensing sage wisdom for anybody who will listen. Instead, she’s a firecracker, a woman who has better things to do than sit still answering questions.
When asked if she has advice for young women, she replies briskly and succinctly: “No!” I prod her to offer something, but the general holds her ground. “I’m not a smart woman. I’m a poor old lady. And God doesn’t have a telephone.” Ynez Tongson, Maui Time Weekly
A sampling of @grandmaflorence’s tweets…
There’s a storm watch for Hawaii, but I don’t think so. I can see blue patches in the sky. But then, what would an old lady like me know? 7:57 AM Oct 6th from web
I lost a tooth and I’m told I mustn’t throw it away because a 100-yr-old tooth is a “rare artform.” Hahaha. 11:56 AM Oct 5th from web
One of you asked if there’s anything I want to do in life that I haven’t done yet. No! No need to do more! 2:21 PM Sep 22nd from web
My family keeps putting food on my plate they think I want. I put it all back because I prefer serving myself! 3:53 PM Sep 8th from web
Maui News is brought to my door. Patty asks what I think. I just say, “I don’t know!” I’m 101 and don’t want to waste time with bad news! 11:13 AM Sep 1st from web
I have lived through ups and downs. My doc, dentist, neighbors and 2 of my 4 children are no longer with us. I want to know what’s for lunch? 12:43 PM Aug 27th from web
I attended a senior citizens workshop on elder abuse. We need to say what’s on our minds and make our own decisions as much as possible. 4:04 PM Aug 24th from web
Saturdays I cook lunch. Rice, tofu and carrots. The phone rings but too much humbug to pick it up. Will call back later. 3:40 PM Aug 22nd from web
Please forgive me for talking so frankly about dying. I’ve been thinking about dying for the past twenty years. It’s ok. I’m not afraid. 5:33 PM Aug 20th from web
I used to watch CNN everyday, but now I like Animal Planet and food shows better. 3:15 PM Aug 17th from web
I’m 101. Spending today by myself, without a care, glad there’s no man sitting on the couch expecting me to cook his meals. 1:27 PM Aug 16th from web
I’m 101. Fixing b’fast. Papaya. Oatmeal. Mega-vitamins 2x day. My doc advised against this. He’s now dead. 12:45 PM Aug 15th from web
To follow @grandmaflorence, visit www.twitter.com/grandmaflorence