Like most people who live to be in their 90s, Liz LeMat has witnessed changes that most of us read about in history books, from important technological advances to world-changing social movements.
Just shy of her 96th birthday, LeMat reflected on a life that to some may be quite ordinary, but to others is a lesson in resilience. Four marriages and four divorces, two bouts of breast cancer, a mastectomy, losing the love of her life to melanoma and losing some of her dearest friends all have taught LeMat one thing: "You get through it and life goes on."
The important thing, she said, is to keep moving. At 65, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. She tried radiation, but the cancer had advanced and LeMat was forced to undergo a mastectomy.
"It didn't stop me," she said, and added that this is the attitude she hopes others who are suddenly faced with cancer will adopt.
Throughout that ordeal, she danced anytime she got the chance and would drive down to Palo Alto and Mountain View to join round dance groups.
Years later, she would go on to beat the cancer and find love at the age of 79 with Harry Schwartz, a retired social worker from San Jose who was five years her junior and who she considers the love of her life.
Although she had been a married woman for most of her adult life since her first marriage at age 19, with Schwartz, LeMat found something that was missing from her previous marriages.
"This was the first time somebody really loved me," she said. "It was so different."
The two met in an exercise class at the senior center and became good friends. Then, six years later, they started a romance that lasted until Schwartz's death from melanoma eight years later.
"We got along so well," she recalled. "We had fun cooking meals for each other and going to plays and concerts."
It's Schwartz's companionship that she misses the most now. Now and then she'll hear an announcement about Michael Feinstein, her "celebrity crush," giving a concert in the area, and wishes Schwartz were still around to accompany her.
At 96, the passing of friends also becomes a common occurrence, LeMat said. There are friends she once shared every thought with, but most of those close friends are no longer around.
"You miss that when it's gone," she said. "It's terrible."
And although she walks without assistance and keeps her mind sharp by reading, doing crossword puzzles and using an iPad to email friends and relatives, she can no longer drive.
She continues to attend a fitness class at the senior center, but can no longer walk the mile to the center from her house, something she routinely did three times a week. Now she depends on someone to drive her there.
She is close to her daughter, who resides in the Almaden Valley and helps drive her to places, among other tasks. She also has a son who lives in Southern California and two adult grandchildren.
LeMat has had to give up ballroom dancing, which she would do three times a week, an activity that helped her through some of the hardest times in her life.
"Dancing was my life," she said.
But just because you can't do an activity you once enjoyed doesn't meant that life stops being enjoyable, LeMat said.
"At this age, there are different joys," she said. "I look forward to ice cream after lunch."
Though LeMat credits her long life to genetics, she stressed the importance of being physically active and pointed to other factors as possible reasons for her longevity, such as adding wheat germ to her cereal every morning, never smoking and drinking moderately, as well as maintaining a healthy diet with a little wiggle room for the good things in life. And, most importantly, surrounding herself with family and good friends.
She lives in the same house that she bought 39 years ago for $70,000 and loves to stay in touch with her loved ones via email and text messaging.
"I like personal emails," she said. "I have a niece that I email back and forth."
For LeMat, who was born in Washington, D.C., exactly one year before the onset of the 1918 flu pandemic that affected nearly 500 million people across the world and killed 1 percent to 3 percent of the world's population, there have been so many changes throughout her lifetime that it's hard to keep track of them all. Among the advancements she considers amazing are airplanes, microwaves, Skype and navigation systems.
"I'm blown away by the stuff they have in cars," she said.
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