Rosa Shaheen turns 90 on Friday, and she soon will be off to St. Augustine, Florida, to celebrate with four generations of her family.
The Shaheens have been taking beach vacations every summer for more than 60 years, so they’ve come back with a lot of sand between their toes.
After they make their traditional visit to the fort at Castillo de San Marcos and take their annual stroll down St. George Street, they will roast and toast her milestone birthday with dinner at a nice Italian restaurant.
Rosa has had her share of fettuccine and rigatoni in her lifetime. Her parents were Italian immigrants who arrived in Macon almost a century ago.
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St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, so it’s somehow fitting it’s the place where Rosa will be inducted into the society of nonagenarians.
Only Rosa doesn’t look 90. Or act 90. To her, 90 is the new 80. Or 71. Or 63.
She does almost everything full speed. She is an LED light bulb with no dimmer. Her package has no expiration date.
She took a tumble in her yard a few weeks ago, scratching up her face. The neighbors swear she must have been trying to hurdle the hedges in training for the Summer Olympics.
“I’ve always been hyper,” she said, laughing.
As with countless others of her generation, it’s not how old you are but how you are old.
She makes visits to nursing homes to cheer up the “old people.”
Some folks remember her from her days as a kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, where she taught colors, shapes, numbers and the alphabet to a generation of students.
“Mama taught kindergarten at St. Joseph’s for so long they started calling her ‘Sister Mary Rose,’” said her oldest daughter, Susan Harshbarger.
She still stays in touch with many of her former students. When she retired, she turned a play room in her home into an office. She keeps up with all her students on different computers. She has files with newspaper clippings of their accomplishments, letters, cards and timeless jokes.
Susan said family members refer to the room as the “Land of the Lost.” Only her mom knows her filing system.
One of her former kindergarten students, Reggie Howard, invited her to a military ceremony a few years ago in Jacksonville, Florida. He was being promoted to the rank of captain in the Navy. Howard, who now works at the Pentagon, delighted the crowd when he saluted her with his remarks. He recognized his kindergarten teacher as someone who “had meant a great deal to me since I was 5 years old.”
Others may know her from her longtime involvement with the Macon Women’s Club, serving in leadership positions at both the local and state levels. Or from St. Joseph Catholic Church, where her faithfulness can be found almost every time the doors are open.
Rosa has probably written more letters of encouragement, notes of sympathy and licked more stamps than any other parishioner. She usually doesn’t even have to sign her name. They know her handwriting.
She has received awards for her church work from the Diocese and for her service work from Mount de Sales Academy. She also is a loyal patron of local community theaters and is a regular at the American Legion, where her late husband, Louie, was a member.
“We have to factor in an extra 20 or 30 minutes every time we go to a restaurant or store with her,” said her oldest son, Joe. “She always runs into somebody she knows or somebody she taught or taught their kids.”
She was born on June 10, 1926, the middle of Enrico and Santina DiVenuto’s three children. Her father was a tile setter. He and Santina were from a part of Italy near Venice. They married after they came to the United States.
“My daddy used to say the ‘Di’ in ‘DiVenuto’ was royalty,” Rosa said.
However, they were not a family of great wealth … except when it came to love.
Enrico later opened DiVenuto’s Grocery at the corner of Houston Avenue and Cleveland Street. It was a neighborhood grocery with a butcher shop.
Rosa attended Bruce Elementary and Miller High School for Girls, where she graduated in 1944. “There are only eight of us left,” she said. They have regular meetings and reunions at Jeneane’s.
She met Louie at a dance in the St. Joseph social hall. His father owned Georgia Market House on Second Street. (It is now on Poplar.) They were married in 1948 and had four children – Joe, Susan Harshbarger, Janet Wood and Tina Shaheen.
When Chuck Shaheen was mayor of Warner Robins, people would ask Rosa if they were related. “We’re not,” she said. “But we always said we had a few cousins we would swap for each other.”
Louie was co-owner and operator of Stokes-Shaheen Produce, which was once one of the largest wholesalers of fruits and vegetables in the area. It closed about 10 years ago. He died in 2003.
Because of Rosa’s influence, two of her children and five of her grandchildren became teachers and educators. Son Joe is an attorney. Daughter Tina is a certified registered nurse anesthetist.
There is never a dull moment around Rosa. She has been playing “Name That Tune’’ on the piano for three generations of ears. She still gets down on the floor and plays games with her great-grandchildren.
“When I take my kids to visit her, they are not going to visit their great grandmother, they are going to play with Mimama,’’ said her oldest grandchild, Katie Harshbarger DeFoor. “This means cards games, dancing to old rock n’ roll, telling jokes and watching movies.’’
On a recent cruise in the Caribbean, she even went sailing with them. (Forever the optimist, she already has renewed her passport.) On trips to the family’s cabin at Lake Rabun, Rosa is the self-appointed “camp director” and makes regular hikes to Minnehaha Falls.
“Like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ she loves an adventure,” Susan said. “But she will tell you in a heartbeat there is no place like home. Mama’s treasures have always been her family and friends. They have made her life richer than money ever could.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.