What happened on August 18, 1920? The culmination of the work of strong women—the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote—was ratified. And another strong woman came into the world—Vincentia D’Amato Becker. On Tuesday, August 18, a banner hung above her home, recognizing both tremendous 100-year-old milestones. Beneath the banner, that woman, better known as “Toots,” raised a glass of champagne with her friends, neighbors and many, many family members who all gathered to sing Happy Birthday to her on the momentous occasion. But being a Rockaway girl, as Toots turned 100, she spent most of the day celebrating at one of her favorite places—the beach—surrounded by the people who keep her going—her family.
“I’m 100 years old! I didn’t think I’d last this long,” Toots said on the beach on Tuesday. Even being able to make it to the beach for her annual birthday celebration was a big accomplishment. But her family, who she says has carried her through to the ripe old age of 100, stepped up yet again. “I didn’t think I’d make the beach, but my grandchildren got me down here. They’re wonderful,” she said.
Using a specialized beach wheelchair, Toots’ grandkids got her down, not just to the beach, but all the way to the ocean, so she could take a celebratory toe dip on her big day. Asked about how the water felt, Toots giddily responded, “delicious. I love it!”
Toots has been dipping her toes in the water since she was nine years old. Originally a Brooklyn girl, Toots would spend summers in Rockaway, and in 1965, she made it her permanent home after her late husband, Thomas, found the perfect piece of land and had their dream home built for them. While Thomas is now gone, that house is still home and has served as the roots of a family tree that keeps growing. From five kids, to 14 grandchildren, sixteen great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, the youngest being six-month old Jackson, the Becker family just keeps expanding. And on Tuesday, most returned to that Rockaway home to celebrate the grand matriarch of it all.
Despite coronavirus restrictions, it did not stop most of her family from coming out to celebrate, with some even making the trip back to Rockaway from as far as Seattle and North Carolina. They wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s not every day that your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother turns 100. The family-vibe was strong on Beach 124th and for Toots, family is everything.” As long as we’re together, that’s all that matters,” Toot said.
“Family, family, family, that’s what keeps her alive,” youngest daughter, Linda Ruggiero said. “It’s a dream come true to celebrate her 100th birthday because tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. To have her here is such a blessing. To be a great-great-grandmother, I don’t know any family that’s blessed to have that, so I’m very proud.”
PJ Larkin, one of the 14 grandchildren, who made the trip from Seattle said, “I wouldn’t miss this. For my kids, her great-grandchildren, to have her, is incredible. Some people will say, ‘oh, we can’t believe she made it to 100.' But everybody here knew she was going to make it. She’s the matriarch of this family, but it is her spirit that gets all of these people together in one spot. It’s all about family for her. She’s always taken care of us. As an Italian grandmother you couldn’t come in without being handed a plate of food and her asking if it was enough,” PJ Larkin said. On Tuesday, Toots skipped the cooking as her family had pizza delivered right to the beach, but the family love kept her heart full. “As long as the family’s around, I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” PJ Larkin said.
Another grandson, Rich Ruggiero, agreed. “It’s not surprising that she’s 100. You’d just think she’s like a 30-year-old woman, just one year older, and I know she’ll be here next year. She’s not going anywhere,” he said. Ruggiero made the trip all the way from North Carolina to be there for Toots. “You gotta fight through to be there for your grandmother’s 100th birthday,” he said.
That fighting spirit is something Toots has passed on to her many family members. “I feel blessed every day to still have her,” granddaughter Sue Settanni said. “We got through Hurricane Sandy together in that house and she survived that and the fact that she’s still with us, I can’t feel more blessed. She’s a fighter. She’s taught us the core values in life. She’s given me more of an education about life than my two master’s degrees. And she’s still got it, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Barbara Larkin, who spends time caring for her mother along with her sisters, sees that fighting spirit daily. “She rarely complains. I don’t think she has one negative bone in her body. She’s always asking how the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren are. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world because not only is she my mother, she is the most caring, wonderful, kind, understanding person and it’s a pleasure to be with her. Who at age 72, can say they’ve had their mother, their best friend alongside them during this journey through life? She’s just an incredible human being and she love, love, loves Rockaway. To see her today, putting her feet in the water, it was amazing.”
After leaving the beach and heading back to the house, that Rockaway love was returned as neighbors joined from all around to raise a glass to Toots and wish her a happy birthday, while staying socially distanced. Everyone enjoyed a cannoli-cream-filled birthday cake decorated with seashells and a black and white photo of a young Toots showing off her bathing suit. Guests went home with a goodie bag complete with Tootsie rolls, of course.
“It’s a perfect day,” Toots said.
By Katie McFadden
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