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Still eating cake at 106

She has lived in three centuries and three countries, surviving devastating hurricanes and political uprisings.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


BEACH PARK -- Something is keeping Maria Fernandez awake.

She has just celebrated her 106th birthday, and with the candles extinguished and the gifts unwrapped, she should be sound asleep in bed.

Her granddaughter, Diana Ciccarello, leans over to kiss her cheek as her great-granddaughter, Brigitte Ciccarello, spoon-feeds her a small slice of coconut birthday cake.

Cake. That's it. That's why Maria Fernandez can't relax.

"I want you to eat," she says in Spanish to everyone at once, gesturing at an enormous chunk of cake sitting on a nearby dresser.

She is, as always, the hostess. Never mind that the house is her daughter's or that the food was prepared by her family. It is her party. And you simply must have some cake.

To her family, Mrs. Fernandez is Abuela, Grandmother. But she is, in fact, two generations past Abuela, with four children, 13 grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Fernandez speaks little English, and after 106 years, her speech is soft and labored.

But her mind is still sharp. She tells stories that wind from her childhood in Spain to her husband's skill as a furniture builder, before always returning to the the most important of all topics: Please, have a slice of cake on my birthday.

"She's always been the giver, the doer," says Diana Ciccarello. "That's very important to her, that everything be just right."

Until last fall, she would walk around the house, dusting and cleaning wherever she could. She insists she can still cook for her family if needed.

Mrs. Fernandez began working at age 8, cleaning houses and caring for local children in Galicia, Spain. In 1920, she married a prospering young Portuguese furniture maker named Jose.

One of Jose's wealthiest clients was so complimentary of his craft that he gave the family full use of a home in Havana, Cuba, where Jose, Maria and their two children moved in 1924.

Her voice cracks when she speaks about Jose, who died in 1984.

"He died very young," she says. He was 83.

"Oh, no, don't talk anymore about this," Brigitte interjects. "She'll start to cry."

But Mrs. Fernandez keeps going. "I loved Jose," she says. "I wanted no one else."

Late at night, when Mrs. Fernandez thinks about Jose and begins to cry, Brigitte, who moonlights as a professional belly dancer, dances the flamenco in her room. Mrs. Fernandez claps along as Brigitte's dancing takes her back to Galicia, where she and Jose danced the paso doble and the Spanish jota.

In Cuba, Jose and Maria had two more children, but not before their lives were torn apart in 1926 by one of the deadliest hurricanes in the island's history. More than 600 people were killed, and Jose and Maria's home was destroyed.

While Jose struggled to re-establish his business, Maria cooked for the entire family, and even the entire neighborhood. Paella. Arroz con pollo. Caldo gallego. And her specialty, empanadas.

Jose became a prominent furniture maker in Cuba, even building pieces for then-president Fulgencio Batista. Cuba's vice president, Raul de Cardenas, visited Jose's shop to discuss his purchases.

But when Fidel Castro rose to power, Jose was put out of business. Maria feared for her husband's life, and in 1958, they came to the United States.

Their daughter, Concepcion, had come to America a few years earlier with her husband, Robert, a doctor. He purchased the two houses adjacent to his Ybor City clinic, and the couple moved their parents to Tampa -- Robert's parents in one house, and Jose and Maria in the other.

Maria Fernandez and Maria Iglesias were friends well into their 90s. They would cook every day but Thursday -- their night to drink beer, eat pizza and watch Spanish soap operas.

Maria Iglesias died a few months shy of her 100th birthday. Mrs. Fernandez, though, was still going strong -- right up until Sept. 11.

She had been living in the Iglesias household for some time, but television images of the World Trade Center managed to put a tiny crack in her spirit.

"She started crying, and she said, 'This world's in trouble. We need to stay together,' " said Brigitte, who also lives in the house.

After that, she could no longer muster enthusiasm for walking.

Though she has given up her cane, she hasn't given up on life. To keep her circulation moving, she rubs and exercises her dark, mottled arms by tugging on her frail fingers.

"She wants to get up," Diana Ciccarello said after the party. "She loved today. Getting up like that with a lot of people was a little flustering, but she loved it."

Her family believes there must be a reason Mrs. Fernandez is still alive. She is certainly stronger than she should be at 106, having outlived a husband and two children, and having survived a hurricane and a fierce political uprising in Cuba.

"She doesn't want to let go," says Diane. "She loves it. She loves here. She loves life."

She repeats the words for emphasis.

"She loves life."

-- Writer Jay Cridlin can be reached at 226-3374 or cridlin@sptimes.com.

Maria Fernandez

AGE: 106

HOME: Beach Park

FAVORITE DISH:

Pork and Chorizos Empanadas

THE RECIPE:

Dough

  • (Make the night before.)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 tablespoons lard
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 2 cups warm water
  • Pinch of sugar

Mix flour with lard, salt, yeast and sugar. Add water to dough. Work dough with hands. Divide dough into two balls. Cover balls with a piece of cloth for two hours and then work dough again. Flatten into 20 by 12 sheet, slightly thicker than a pie crust, and arrange in low pan. The second ball will be used to cover the empanada.

Pork stuffing

  • 2 pounds diced pork
  • 1 sliced onion
  • 1 sliced green pepper
  • 4 tomatoes
  • 4 chorizos, cut into small pieces
  • Small cans of baby peas and pimentos
  • 1 egg white

Combine first four ingredients. Marinate two hours. Cook two hours. Allow to cool. Roll dough to fit 12-inch by 20-inch pastry pan. Place filling on top of dough. Sprinkle with chorizos, pimentos and peas. Roll remaining dough and top pastry. Cook empanada for 1-1/2 hours or until light brown at 375 degrees. Half an hour before the empanada is ready, spread top with an egg white and continue baking.

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