99 Reasons to Celebrate

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On Sunday, August 18, nearly 40 people gathered on Beach 124th Street to celebrate the matriarch of their big family—Vincentia Becker, better known as “Toots.” And what better way to celebrate a 99th birthday than with a pizza party on the beach? But it was more than just a big number they were celebrating—they were celebrating the amazing life of a strong woman that is loved dearly.

At 99 years old, Toots (a long-lasting nickname she got from her father, inspired by a 1922 Al Jolson song) has seen a lot in her lifetime. Born August 18, 1920, she’s seen everything from the invention of penicillin, to the modern washing machine, to automatic cars, and these days one of her favorite things to do is watch those cars go by her Beach 124th beach block home as she enjoys the Rockaway air on her front porch. Sitting in front of the house is something that’s been instilled in her since childhood. Growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her brother, Toots was born into the life of a “stoop kid.” And from the stoops of her lifetime, Toots has seen plenty.

Moving from Williamsburg to Crown Heights, Toots spent some time living by Ebbets Field, so it was only natural for her to become a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and she was a big one. So much so that she got to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the New York Yankees at the very last world series at Ebbets Field in 1955, before the Dodgers left town for Los Angeles. Shortly after, Toots eventually switched teams. Now she proudly wears her Yankees jersey and watches them play any time one of her grandkids calls to let her know the game is on.

When she was 16, at a park on Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn, the young Italian girl encountered a handsome young Irish and German man—Thomas J. Becker, Jr. The young lovebirds were head over heels in love but had to wait five years before tying the knot. “My mother made me wait until I was 21,” Toots said, but there was no real rush. The couple would go on to celebrate 55 years of marriage. Toots and Thomas got married in 1941 at St. Teresa of Avila Church, which still stands at Classon Ave and Sterling Place, a detail Toots couldn’t forget.

The couple spent a short time in wedded bliss before World War II would change everything. In 1942, Thomas Becker enlisted in the U.S. Army and on October 7, 1942, he began his time with the European–African–Middle Eastern service, traveling everywhere from Egypt to England to Belgium to France and beyond as WWII raged on.

Back home, Toots fought her own battle of raising a child alone during wartime. “I was three months pregnant when he went overseas,” she recalled. When the child was born, Thomas Becker was told he had a baby boy waiting for him back home, but he would later learn that his first child was a girl—Jo Ann. At the time, Toots lived in an eight-family home on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn, where she had the help of her parents to raise Jo Ann, but it wasn’t easy. “It was very depressing. We were rationed. Gasoline was a quarter and you could only get two to three gallons a week, sugar was rationed, oil was rationed. We had to put the lights out and dark shades up by eight at night due to fears that the enemy would fly over to New York, so I’d be giving Jo Ann a bath in the dark. It was tough times, it wasn’t easy,” Toots recalled. But Toots carried on. To try to improve her situation, Toots decided to go to work. Her mother watched the baby while Toots would go to work from 5 to 8 at night. She spent some time working for Schrader’s, a company that created valves for airplanes during WWII.

Meanwhile, after her husband fought at the Battle of the Bulge for three days, Toots believed her temporary role as a single mother, had become more permanent. “I didn’t hear from him for a month. I thought he was gone. It was right around Christmas. It was the saddest Christmas ever,” she said. Fortunately, Toots would hear from Thomas a month later, when she received a letter in January 1945. Thomas and Toots had developed their own code for letters. This one made mention of Mrs. N. Becker, Mrs. A Becker, Mrs. N. Becker, Mrs. C. Becker, Mrs. Y. Becker. “He was in Nancy, France,” Toots recalled. On October 14, 1945, Becker’s service came to an end, and he came home to his wife and new daughter with some medals to his name.

The Beckers continued to live on Rogers Avenue before they made their way closer and closer to Rockaway—on to New York Avenue and then Marine Park, and along the way, their family grew, with three more daughters, Barbara, Marilyn and Linda, and a son, Michael. Toots dreamed of one day living in Rockaway, a place where she spent much time going to the beach as a child and where her mother and aunt had even owned a rental property up until 1930. Upon hearing Toots’ dream, Thomas did whatever he could to make it come true. He came across a lot on Beach 124th and had a home built for her, complete with views of the ocean, a kitchen big enough to fit a booth for all the children, and a walk-in closet. On Halloween, October 31, 1965, the Beckers moved in.

Together they worked to support their growing family. Toots started working for the Neponsit Home as a telephone operator, a career she kept for 18 years until she retired at age 62. Thomas worked various jobs with the Department of Sanitation, United Parcel Service, NYS Courts and 25 years as an usher for Madison Square Garden, until he passed away in 1996, a day after his 77th birthday. “He had a hard life. He smoked during the war. He died of lung cancer,” Toots said.

In 99 years, Toots has seen a lot of loss. “All of my friends that I had in high school and Brooklyn—they’re all gone,” she said. “That’s life.” However, in that time, she’s also seen the creation of new life. In addition to her five children, Toots has 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, the oldest, 55, and the youngest, five. She also has two great-great-grandchildren, and her growing family has kept Toots very busy, especially when it comes to her crocheting hobby. “I recently got a new great-great-granddaughter and I made her a pink crib cover. I’m waiting to give it to her at her Christening. I make a big blanket for each one of my children and great grandchildren,” she said. She’s currently gearing up to work on another one—this time she’s thinking blue, for what the family believes will be a new great-great-grandson due in February. Besides keeping her crocheting hobby alive, Toots says it is her growing family that has kept her going. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have such a beautiful, big family and that’s what I attribute my longevity to—because of the wonderful family that I have,” she said.

She also attributes it to good doctors and medicine, which she’s seen plenty of in her lifetime. She now uses an oxygen machine daily. She also has a new hip and a new knee on her right, and this April, she broke her femur on the same leg. However, Toots is a fighter. After four months of rehabilitation, she was able to start walking again, with use of a walker, and earlier this month, she returned to her favorite place to be—the home that was built for her, where she lives by herself. However, Toots is never lonely. She always has the company of a nearby family member, an aide or a neighbor, who she enjoys conversing with, and with 99 years of wisdom and a mind as sharp as a tack, there’s plenty to learn from a woman that’s been alive since 1920. Among her most important tips are— “Don’t smoke. Eat sensibly. Save your money. And enjoy the Rockaway air…you can’t beat this air,” she said.

Toots will surely continue to enjoy the Rockaway air from her front porch, as she gets ready to celebrate an even bigger milestone in 2020—her 100th birthday. “I’m looking forward to that… If I’m here,” she said. “I take one day at a time.”

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