04/16/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2012

More Surprising Advice From A Centenarian: Go With The Flow

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I approached the hostess in a popular delicatessen. "I'm here with my great-aunt, Ida. She's turning 101 years old next month!" I was hoping for some centenarian special treatment, but the hostess cheerfully added us to the bottom of the wait list. I wove my way through the crowd to report back to my ancient great-aunt sitting patiently near the entrance. I asked if she'd rather go someplace else, but she was busy making friends with the schoolgirl beside her.

Eventually, the hostess directed us to a table at the farthest end of the restaurant. My blind great-aunt took my arm, stood tall, and forged ahead with Zen-like focus while our path morphed into a hip-breaking obstacle course. When her cane bumped a chair leg, or a child darted past, she took note, adjusted, and carried on. By the time we reached the booth, I was exhausted from imagining all that could have gone wrong. She was excited to order lunch. I slipped in beside her and wrapped my arm around her delicate frame. "How are you so unflappable?" I asked.

"Elizabeth, I say go with the flow. Or to hell with it!" She slapped the table for emphasis. "Don't you think?"

I nodded in agreement, but I felt uneasy. Go with the flow? My favorite gift last Christmas was a personalized day planner. I have goals to achieve! Mountains to move! Self-worth to prove! If I were to go with the flow, I worry I might never flow myself out of bed. But Ida's life proves that going with the flow doesn't mean being passive; it means pursuing what makes you happy and having the courage to adapt when things don't go as planned. Of course, it's easier when you know you are worthy regardless of what happens. "I've never tried to impress anybody," Ida said matter-of-factly. "I'm just me. Take it or leave it."

Born in 1911, Ida was one of six children. Her father worked for the railroad, and he found a travel companion in his first-born. "He'd want to go somewhere, and at the drop of a hat, away we'd go," she shared. "That's where I got my wanderlust."

At 20 years old, Ida proposed to her boyfriend by leaving a note on his car. "Joe, if you love me, you'll marry me Saturday." They eloped and planned to start a family in Cleveland, Ohio, where she grew up. But when their newborn baby died from complications, and Joe was injured in a work accident, their big family plan disappeared. Their doctor suggested they move to a more tropical climate for Joe's health. Ida embraced the unknown when she boarded a bus to Los Angeles in the 1930s. "I didn't know anyone, but I couldn't wait to get there! Of course, back then, the first thing you wanted to do was take a picture in front of an orange tree."

Joe came home from work one day and mentioned an opportunity to pan for gold near Yosemite. Ida surprised herself by saying they should give it a go. "I was a city girl, but I took to it like a duck to water. We lived under the trees on the bend of the river. I made Joe nail wooden fruit boxes in the trees for my shelving. After awhile, we moved into a railway house. Our town had 13 people in it. It was great fun."

In the 1950s, they were living comfortably back in Los Angeles when a friend needed someone to look over his property in the valley. It wasn't anything Ida and Joe imagined they'd be doing, but they jumped at the chance. "It was such an adventure," she recalled. "The cottage had no electricity, but we did have an indoor toilet. I raised chickens and rabbits. And we ate from my vegetable garden. Our city friends thought it was great to leave L.A. and come into the valley. We'd play Canasta all night."

When Ida goes with the flow, her fighting spirit shines. Ida was in her 90s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Confronted with the decision about whether to have a mastectomy, Ida looked down at her chest and back up at the doctor. "Well, I've had it a long time. Do what you have to do." Resilience is one of her secrets to longevity.

Ida was sharing stories about living in Morocco when the server brought her potato pancakes to the table. "Oh yes!" she exclaimed. But then she noticed the side of sour cream. A tad suspicious of the combination, she added a dollop to her pancake, tried it, and smiled brightly. "Haven't you found sometimes, when you get something you hadn't known you wanted, you so enjoy it, you think: Why didn't I think of this before?" To Ida, the world is still a place full of possibility and undiscovered pleasures. Go with the flow or to hell with it.

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For more Ida advice: "This Is Only the Beginning: Surprising Advice From a Centenarian"

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