Jewish Journal

Being Almost 100 Calls for 99 Cents Only Bash

Cecile Petrak talks to her guests at her birthday party. Photo by Olga Grigoryants.

When Cecile Petrak and her family planned her birthday party a few months ago, they thought about organizing a themed party around her age.

Naturally, there was only one place to hold it for the woman who was born in 1918.

“We thought, ‘Let’s celebrate her birthday at the 99 Cents Only store,’ ” Cindy Petrak, Cecile’s daughter-in-law, said. “That worked out really well.”

On the afternoon of Oct. 22, the Petrak family blew up purple, blue and white balloons — matching the store’s logo — and welcomed a few dozen guests outside the 99 Cents Only Store in Northridge to celebrate the 99th birthday of the family matriarch.

Cecile sat at a table with her friends, most of them in their 80s and 90s. Some guests came leaning on their walkers and, one by one, went to her table to say hello and chat.

Visitors signed birthday wishes on a poster that featured the store’s logo and a photo of Cecile in a graduation cap and gown, a picture she had recently found and liked. Someone joked about celebrating Cecile’s next birthday at a $1.00 store.

“I love the party,” Cecile said. “I am seeing people who I care about and that makes me really happy.”

When Cecile prepared to cut her white birthday cake, her guests sang “Happy Birthday” and many captured the moment with their cameras and cellphones.

Raised in Brooklyn, Cecile grew up in a family of Russian Jews who moved from what is now Ukraine, looking for “better opportunities.” Her father, who had a degree in engineering, owned a store and sold real estate. Like many families during The Great Depression, Cecile’s was far from wealthy —she remembered once asking her parents to buy something at a market, which made her mother cry because their family couldn’t afford it.

She recalled only one time when she experienced anti-Semitism. It was when she went to a Macy’s store in New York looking for a job and the store manager told her she had already met her quota for hiring Jews.

“You didn’t go to a place looking for a job outside the Jewish neighborhood,” Cecile said.

Someone joked about celebrating Cecile’s next birthday at a $1.00 store.

A good student, Cecile graduated high school when she was 15. She married in 1947, moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Hyman, and began working as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher. Soon, she and Hyman adopted their daughter, Marisa, and son, Jonathan.

“It was the best thing I have ever done,” Cecile said as she stood next to Jonathan at her birthday party. “They are the best kids in the world, and it was very easy to raise them.”

Cecile and Hyman ended up divorcing, and she raised the children alone.

Being a single mother, however, didn’t stop her from joining the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher strike in 1970.

“She went on strike because it was about women’s issues,” Jonathan said. “She has always believed in fighting for civil rights.”

Despite Cecile’s advanced age, her family and friends say she is a young-at-heart woman who enjoys traveling to Las Vegas and using social media. She has four grandchildren.

“She is pretty remarkable,” Cindy said. “She wishes her grandchildren happy birthday on Facebook, several days in advance, making sure it gets there on time as if it is going in the mail.”

The only drawback of being 99 years old, Cecile said, is feeling young but not being able to go wherever she wants.

“It doesn’t feel like 99,” the Valley Glen resident said. “As long as I can read and talk to people, I am good.”

Cecile said she knows only two people her age but she rarely feels lonely.

“She loves to read, tell stories and laugh,” Jonathan said. “She loves being Jewish.”

Cecile said longevity runs in her family. Her mother lived until she was almost 100 years old and her father passed away when he was 87.

“I’ve had a good life,” Cecile said as she stood next to her grandson Andrew, Jonathan and Cindy. “I feel blessed.”