Homeland’s oldest resident Frances Merlina going strong as she celebrates her 105th birthday
Living on her own at the time, Frances Merlina had fallen and broken her ankle. On the way to the hospital, the EMTs asked when she had last been in the hospital. She turned to her son, David, and asked how old he was.
“Sixty-two”, David said.
“She turned to them and said, ‘62 years ago,’” David Merlina recalls now.
It was shortly after that accident that Frances came to live at Homeland Center – and where at 105, the Center’s oldest resident is still one of the healthiest people around.
Her secret? “A lunchtime bowl of tomato soup every day,” she says.
“Some days, I’m real talkative,’’ she says with a smile. “Other days, I’m not.’’
On April 27, the Merlina family and Homeland celebrated Frances’ 105th birthday with a Mass said by her nephew, Father John Acri, and a party attended by children, nieces, nephews, and many of her 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The celebration began in Homeland’s classic 1950s diner and then moved to the main dining hall, where a harpist played “Happy Birthday.’’ In addition to her family, many of the Center’s staff – who the Merlina family calls “angels’’ – came to wish Frances well.
“I don’t think there’s a staff member who doesn’t know and enjoy spending time with Frances,’’ said Barry S. Ramper II, Homeland’s president and CEO. “We are honored to have Frances here and to help her celebrate this amazing milestone.’’
From her sunny room at Homeland, Frances’ sons David and Joseph recall the joys and trials their mother has experienced since she was born in 1909. In her youngest years, the family lived on a farm in Halifax. Every Thursday, her father, John Acri, loaded a produce wagon and took the perilous journey from the northern Dauphin County borough over Peters Mountain to Harrisburg to sell his goods.
“He had a lantern and one horse and kept his feet warm with the lantern,” says son Joseph Merlina. “He did that every week. That was what he did.”
The country life ended when Frances was 5, at the death of her mother. Until she was 16 years old, she and her sister, Mary, lived in the Catholic Diocese’s orphanage for girls at Sylvan Heights – a time she rarely talks about. After the old Sylvan Heights mansion was renovated into its current use as the home for the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg, Joseph suggested they visit, but Frances declined.
“You have a grandson that’s 5 years old,” she said. “What if you had to put him in a home?”
Joseph suddenly realized the deep impression the years in an orphanage had made on his mother.
“Here she was, 5 years old and put in a home, and spoke only Italian in a home that was run by Irish nuns,” he says. “That was tough. That’s why she’s here today at 105. She grew up tough. She had to grow up tough.”
At 16, Frances’ father bought a house in Harrisburg’s Shipoke neighborhood and she went there to live. She attended beauty school and got a job as a beautician at long-gone Kaufmann’s Department Store on Market Square.
Around 1927, her sister’s husband introduced Frances to Andy Merlina, a young Harrisburg man who worked at the post office and whose father had come to America from Italy. Like Frances, Andy had known hardship, leaving school at 14 to support the family after his father died.
“He was good-looking,” Frances recalls. They got married in 1929 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Cameron Street, just as the Great Depression was starting. They settled into a big house on 15th Street in Harrisburg, attending Mass at St. Francis Catholic Church and sending their four children to St. Francis School and Harrisburg Catholic High School, the predecessor to Bishop McDevitt High School.
The first three children were born at home. Frances, with her sly sense of humor, convinced Joseph that the doctor brought his siblings to the house in his doctor’s bag.
“I was 21 years old when I found out the babies weren’t in that bag,” her son insists. “She always told me the babies were in that bag.”
The house was always bustling, with cousins who lived nearby coming almost every night to sit on Aunt Frances’ porch. Frances was a full-time homemaker, and to augment the family income, she rented out two rooms and an apartment in their home. Joe and David remember that she fed the tenants and washed and ironed their sheets.
“She was good with all us children,” says David; “she was a hard worker,” recalls Joseph.
Frances remembers having fun with the children.
“They weren’t bad kids,” she says.
Frances was close with her only daughter, Camille, who passed away at age 64 from multiple sclerosis after having four children of her own. Frances’ husband, Andy, died suddenly from Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1980, at age 74. Though Frances feared she couldn’t make it on her own, she got a townhome in Summerdale, near her sister, and lived there for about 18 years.
After her broken ankle was followed by a broken hip, Frances lived for a time in an assisted living facility until the family learned about Homeland and she was accepted here. Today, Frances’ three surviving children – Andy, Joe, and David – return the devotion she showed them, visiting regularly and helping their mother with meals and care.
At Homeland, Frances plays bingo, enjoys her tomato soup for lunch every day, and takes no medications. Staffers make sure she always looks pretty, helping her dress in colorful outfits and giving her regular manicures. On February 14, 2014, she wore a tiara as Valentine’s Day queen.
“The staff here are angels,” says Joseph. David adds that Mr. Ramper, “should be the president of the United States” for his insistence on the highest standards of service.
Her children, who still laugh and joke with her, appreciate the life lessons learned from their mother.
“She taught us the right things,” says Joseph; “she taught us right from wrong,” adds David.