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A 99-year-old's humble, thankful celebration

Emelia De-Four, with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, visits a 99 Cents Only store in Paramount for a birthday shopping spree.

August 16, 2013|By Nita Lelyveld

If you count wealth in cash, Emelia De-Four has never been rich.

In Trinidad and Tobago, she got in three years of school before her mother died and she had to pick coffee beans to help support her 15 siblings.

In time, she married and gave birth to 14 babies of her own. Three died young, and for the 11 who lived, she sewed flour-sack clothes, which she washed in the river, using corn cobs to scrub out the dirt.

Parents and children slept together in one big room, on mattresses made of rice bags stuffed with grass clippings collected from the side of the road. If the family ate meat at all, it was on Sunday and it was chicken, fetched from a dumping ground where the poultry plant tossed its sub-par carcasses.

De-Four, now a widow, came to America when she was 60. She turned 99 on July 20.

Before that birthday, her daughter Ruphina Allen, 74, had entered a contest at the Paramount store where her mother shops each Sunday after services at Our Lady of the Rosary.

"Celebrate Your 99th Birthday with a 99-Second Shopping Spree at 99 Cents Only Stores!"

For a person born of plenty, such an offer might not tempt.

To Emelia De-Four, it sounded grand.

She approached it as a most significant occasion, arriving for her spree at 7 a.m. Friday in a flowing Sunday-best dress patterned in pink roses. Six more flowers embellished the front of the cream-colored straw hat beneath whose brim she beamed.

Soon the parking lot filled up with family members' cars. Surveying the scene from inside Allen's gold Hyundai SUV, De-Four kept saying again and again in her island lilt: "I am blessed, I am blessed, I am so blessed."

Her entourage of more than two dozen included six of her children (from her youngest, Michael, who is 57, to her eldest, Ricardo, 79), as well as a sampling of her 38 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren and one of her five great-greats, named Emelia, after her.

No one, however, calls De-Four by her given first name. Everyone calls her Mama.

De-Four's was the second 99th birthday party the chain of discount stores has hosted.

She was greeted at the front door with a bouquet of flowers and escorted to a table set up in front of a display of Disney princess-themed school supplies. Above her were birthday balloons. Before her was a 99th birthday cake.

A local councilman made brief remarks. Everyone sang "Happy Birthday." The grands and greats formed a personal paparazzi line, shooting photos and video. And then De-Four, who gets around assuredly without aid, began pushing a cart down the aisles.

She'd been told she could fill it to the brim, taking as much time as she needed.

Before she was done, she would reach for bleach, detergent, Dove Pink soap, Lady Speed Stick, air fresheners, paper towels and paper plates. She'd pick up three terra cotta flower pots, bags of onions and oranges, a bunch of bananas, a butternut squash, two dozen eggs, shredded Monterey Jack, four cans of Polar-brand coconut milk.

She would ignore some requests, "Mama, I need notebooks," and respond to others, "Don't forget the kids' Popsicles, now." She would pause here and there to kiss one of her little ones.

After about 45 minutes, she would end up with 135 items, valued at $143.88.

But her first stop was at the shelves holding religious candles. Sacred hearts, St. Judes — two at a time, she carefully placed 20 in the bottom of her cart.

Each day, De-Four says, she prays from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. — reading Psalms and asking blessings for her children and their children and their children and so on.

If you count wealth in cash, De-Four has never been rich.

But that is not how Mama counts, said Allen, who before she retired had worked as a nurse and a school resource specialist.

"Mama never worked, only made babies," her daughter said. "She'd tell us, `Children are poor people's riches.'"

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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