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This leap year baby is about to turn 92 -- or is it 23?

Mary Ann Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Senior Living Features

PITTSBURGH — If Ethel Jean "E.J." Bergad Bonder hits the lottery, she plans to buy a Porsche for her granddaughter because they will both turn 23 years old this year.

Yep, Ethel was born on Feb. 29, 1932, and will technically turn 23 Thursday. She's a leap year baby.

The Gregorian calendar is based on 365.25 days — the amount of time it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, according to NASA. Most years, the calendar is rounded off and every fourth year, an extra day is added in February for accuracy.

Ethel, who will turn 92 — counting every year since she was born — owns items from many eras.

Her Lower Burrell living room is decorated with durable furniture, some from relatives, some from local stores, like a soft pink couch. "It was much darker but it has faded after 25 years," she said.

Her home reflects the nonagenarian's storied and proud life. But one of her legacies never sat right — being a leap-year baby.

"I was angry because I didn't have a birthday when I was a kid," she said. "I told them I wasn't born in March."

There were always celebrations, but she was the birthday girl without an actual birthday most years.

Now her three children and nine grandchildren enjoy calculating her age in leap years and celebrating when they are the same age.

Later this year, granddaughter Zoe Spodek, of O'Hara, will turn 23 along with her leap-year grandmother.

"My grandmother's personality is very honest," she said. "She's like a historian. She knows it all."

Bonder is a live wire who loves life.

Take her tchotchkes. She doesn't have one solar-powered dancing figurine. She has 15.

Same with nutcrackers. She has a living room coffee table with an army of them.

She continues to work and hasn't retired from real estate (she used to own her own realty company).

"It's good for my mind," she said.

An associate broker, Bonder still pulls floor duty several times a week for Howard Hanna Real Estate Services in New Kensington.

Her gray hairdo still has some girlish curls that come alive when she moves her head to smile or joke.

Her secret? Family, friends and activities. Lots of them.

She's grateful for what she has and continually cultivates it.

Her longest record for keeping a secret is two days, said one of her granddaughters, Kayla Spodek of Wexford.

She is the grandmother who gamely indulges in an adult beverage. Bonder showed up one holiday with giant cans of Mike's Hard Lemonade.

"She said, 'Look what I got for everyone,'" Kayla said. "She drank it all herself.

"My grandmother is always checking up on us grandkids. 'Who are you dating? When are the great-grandkids coming?'"

Zoe Spodek grew up only 25 minutes from Bonder.

"I still call her every other day," she said. "She is funny. She has a schedule when people call her."

 

Bonder was the oldest of five children and grew up in New Kensington and lived in other nearby communities.

She remembers the iceman delivering blocks of ice to homes before electric refrigerators. He would shave off pieces to give kids a treat.

"We played on the street — nobody had a car," she said.

After graduating from New Kensington High School in 1950, she worked as a lab assistant at the Gulf research lab in Harmar.

"There was no computer then, just an adding machine."

Bonder met her future husband while on a vacation at the Miami Beach Nautilus Hotel.

She was writing a postcard and asked a nice-looking man, Norman Bonder of the Bronx, for a pen. They went for ice cream.

"You weren't afraid to get into a car back then," she said.

When she returned home, her mom wouldn't allow her to go to New York to see him. "He had to come to my house first."

After a six-month courtship, he proposed to Bonder.

"I told him then, 'I can't decide.' He said 'Hurry up. I don't have time.'"

Bonder was 23 when she got married, "I was old," she added.

They lived in the West Bronx near Yankee Stadium.

Growing up, her husband's neighbors included a young Tony Curtis, she said.

Bonder got a job in Manhattan's garment district in the office of a wholesale manufacturer.

"Ethel Merman and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers came in for free shirts. Ethel had such a loud mouth. You could hear her talking all over the office everywhere."

After three years together in the Bronx, her husband lost his job.

"I told him, 'I don't want to live here.' Three rooms and no future," she said.

Her family helped them settle in Lower Burrell.

"It was like heaven coming back here ... not in an apartment with cockroaches. My husband loved it here. He never looked back."

Her life in Lower Burrell was idyllic. In the 1970s, the family would get giant ice cream cones every Saturday at Isaly's in New Kensington.

Kara Spodek, 57, remembers those times and recognizes her mother's recipe for lifelong relationships.

"Be nice to people. Never criticize," she said. "My mom was always polite and she brings out the laughter in people."

The family is planning multiple celebrations this year for their leap year baby.

No one worries she'll get tired. After all, she's only 23.


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