by Lisa Olney, Club Fit guest blogger.
Aquatic classes, massage, lunch in the Café, if your personal Venn diagram includes any of these activities, chances are you’ve met the amazing Mia Matteo, who at 90 years old personifies perseverance, positivity, and inspiration. A Jefferson Valley member since 2001, Club Fit has become a part of Mia’s life, keeping her physically and mentally strong, helping her battle through breast cancer, a hip replacement, a pacemaker and Parkinson’s Disease.
A former lap swimmer at the Club, Mia has transitioned to the H2O Water Walking classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:15. If she can’t make one of the class times, she’ll go in the pool on her own to exercise. It’s an energy and interaction that Mia looks forward to every time she goes to the Club. “The water classes and talking to people gives me a lot of energy. To just sit at home would be the worst thing for me,” says Mia. “Club Fit keeps me young.” Mia also adds massage therapy to her gym routine and sees her favorite massage therapist, Jayne D’Ambrosio, every other week. “Jayne knows my body and knows me very well,” says Mia. “My whole body just feels good after a massage.”
So, what is Mia’s philosophy? Stay active, move. “You just have to keep going every day,” explains Mia. “I go to church, I pray a lot, and I thank God every day that I’m still here.” After a life that for years was filled with uncertainty and tragedy this should come as no surprise.
Born in Austria, Mia’s family struggled and was on welfare. With no money and hardly any food, the family was starving. Her mother was also suffering from post-partum depression, and by the time Mia was four, she and her brothers were removed from their home and isolated from one another in different buildings of an orphanage in Vienna. Her mother was placed in a sanitarium.
Mia experienced loving, neglectful, and abusive situations while shuttled between foster homes and the home of her father who had begun a new life and a new family. All without her brothers; all without a sense of why this was happening. When Mia was 12 Adolph Hitler ordered the 1938 invasion of her homeland. The following year Mia’s mother was killed in the gas chambers of Hartheim Castle, a victim of Hitler’s adult euthanasia program, a mass-murder project to kill all mentally and physically disabled adults living in Germany and German annexed territories.
Mia was drafted into the German Air Force at 16 and captured as a prisoner of war alongside several female soldiers. She remembers the cruelty of her Russian captors and a grueling, nine-day march of 40 kilometers per day (24.9 miles) back to Germany where exile and a train to Siberia awaited. Mia and her best friend Annalie escaped as they neared the train station aided by “a group of German women who created a circle around us and hid us with their big dresses.” One of the women sheltered the two in her home where they rested before fleeing to the safety of the American side of the Austrian border.
Life began to shift dramatically for Mia. She married U.S. Air Force Tail Gunner Walter Donelan, and for once life was peaceful. In 1952 Walter was transferred, and the growing family of four made their way to Arlington, MA. Additional transfers took them to France, back to Boston, and finally to New Mexico in 1962. During this time, they had two more children, but the challenges of military life took their toll, and by the end of the year their marriage ended.
New Mexico, however, offered a silver lining when she met Alexander Matteo at a St. Patrick’s Day party in 1963. Kindred spirits, the two were instant soul mates, and ironically, both had four children — two boys and two girls, each — from their first marriages. The couple married that August in Tuckahoe, NY and moved to Shrub Oak where they added two children of their own for a total of ten. Al, passed away three years ago on Thanksgiving, and Mia’s third child, Peter, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer four months later. Like sturdy branches of a grand Oak, however, their family tree continues to grow — honoring the past, embracing the future. Today, Mia is the proud grandmother to 63 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Mia’s unwavering positivity has seen her through the scariest and happiest times of her life. Together, Mia and Al built an impenetrable foundation for their family of love, hard work, and an active lifestyle that included Club Fit. With her children and grandchildren by her side, Mia is ready for next chapter as well — a chapter that will continue to include Club Fit, rain or shine. “I don’t care if it’s raining or if I’m tired — I go, because it always makes me feel so much better when I do,” explains Mia. “I had a very hard life, and I still want to live a little bit. So, I do a little every day and see what happens.”