As she prepares to turn 101 years old this Saturday, Opal Bertha Belle Moss McKay undoubtedly qualifies as the oldest living person of longest residency in Ceres – 75 years.
With the face, mind and limberness of an 80-year-old, Opal opened her Shushan Drive home to me last week with granddaughter Shawna Nunes, a retired Ceres High School teacher and athletic director, joining in.
The McKays are well known in Ceres. Opal had five children but best known locally is former Sheriff’s Captain Richard “Dick” McKay. One of her 18 grandchildren is Jeff McKay (Shawn’s brother) who spent time on the Ceres City Council. Opal has maintained a lower profile in the community which she joined the summer of 1945.
Opal was born Oct. 10, 1919 in Siloam Springs, Ark., to a poor family that included three sisters and two brothers. When asked to relate what her childhood was like, Opal struggled to answer and said, “I don’t remember. My mind’s on vacation.” Her father dug wells for a living but her parents had divorced when Opal was young and her mother cycled through four additional marriages.
When she was about six years old, Opal’s mom and stepdad moved the family to Longmont, Colo., where she finished the eighth grade. In those days of harder times and less rigorous education demands, it was common for kids to skip high school to work to help the family economically and Opal was no exception. Her first job was working in a cannery. She would later earn her high school GED after moving to Ceres.
She didn’t see much of her biological dad because he remained in Arkansas.
“We’d write him once in a while.”
Opal didn’t care for much for her stepfather and couldn’t wait to “get away from home” so that opportunity came with a 1936 romance with James McKay, a Longmont native. Her mother didn’t approve of them getting married because Opal was just shy of her 17th birthday. Their first child, Richard, came along in 1937, followed by four other children –twin sisters Arlene and Darlene, Jim and Don.
James worked odd jobs like driving freshly-cut lumber from the Pipe’s Peak region to his father’s lumber mill.
One memory that Opal shared came from the days when she lived in a basement of a house in Colorado. Opal was heating up water on the stove and accidentally knocked it off the stovetop as toddler Arlene was walking by. The child suffered burns that scar her to this day.
During World War II, James and his brother came out to Southern California to scout for work and then sent for Opal and kids to leave Longmont.
“I came out by train,” recalls Opal. “That was during the war and there were a lot of soldiers on the train. They seemed to enjoy the twins walking back and forth.”
James worked in Pacific shipyards in Redondo Beach. They bounced around to Venice and Compton. The yard closed at the end of World War II in spring 1945 and James was out of work. Opal’s brother, Don Moss, lived in Modesto and suggested they come up to Stanislaus County. Moss was the owner of Don’s Wharf restaurant in Turlock. The couple found work picking fruit and working in the cannery for a while – and lived for about six months in a tent set up in a parents’ yard on Morgan Road, just south of Hatch Road.
They worked until they were able to get a house on Teresa Street in Modesto. Opal and James later moved to a house – Shawna thought it was haunted as a youngster – on Whitmore Avenue east of Moore Road. For 12 years Opal enjoyed her work as a licensed vocational nurse at the Modesto State Hospital, which was located where the MJC West campus is today. She then spent 22 years as a nurse at the Modesto City Hospital in downtown Modesto. It is now a rehabilitation facility. James worked at McCoy Tires in Modesto and then Ceres.
Life as a mom kept her busy but time was always carved our church life. She and James worshiped at the Church of the Nazarene, located where the AM/PM Mini-Mart is at the southwest corner of Whitmore Avenue and Ninth Street. The church sat alongside the Ceres Dehydrator which employed lots of local teens.
I was curious if any of her children got into trouble. Shawna instantly helped answer with a, “Oh yeah,” followed by an exchange of laughter between the two.
“Richard went over to Hughson at the high school there and he spun donuts … on the lawn there in front,” remembered Opal. “I don’t think they did anything to him – they just let him go. He got away with a lot of things. Don was always in trouble.”
After serving in the Air Force Dick became a Ceres Police officer in 1960 and joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1963 and rejoined Ceres Police in 1965. After squabbling about low pay, Dick left for the Sheriff’s Department in 1967 for good where he remained 25 years.
Opal remembers how her twin daughters engaged in classroom mischief by using their identical looks to play tricks by switching classrooms.
Of course, being in small town Ceres, Opal certainly remembers Mae Hensley and Walter White who were significant people in Ceres schools. White was the principal and superintendent of Ceres School District and Hensley was the attendance officer. She also remembers Leroy Cunningham working at a Ceres filling station before he was hired as Ceres’ relief police officer in 1949. Cunningham later served as police chief for 26 years from 1956 to 1983.
When Jim was alive, the couple did a lot of traveling. Shawna remembers the time her grandparents set off on a road trip to Alaska and laughs how neither looked at a map. She laughs when remembering how her Grandma Opal thought Alaska was on the other side of the Washington border and exclaimed, “Oh, we have to drive through Canada!”
Opal was widowed with James’ passing in January 1994. It was a difficult loss considering they had been together for 57 years but her faith and church friends helped her through. Six years later she married.
For about a half-minute, both Opal and granddaughter racked their brains to come up with his name for me. Together they pieced it together. Cummings, but what was his first name? Clyde, no, that was his son. Pete, exploded Shawna. Pete Cummings and they chuckled.
“She was dating him,” explained Shawna, “and my Dad said, ‘Well just have him live here.’ And she goes, ‘I can’t live in sin!”
They were married for 16 years until his death.
Opal gave a hearty laugh when asked how a person lives to be 100. Her laugh increases after Shawna answers, “You don’t die!”
“Well, you know, I worked hard all my life so work don’t hurt you,” said Opal.
Shawna added “no fast-food, doesn’t drink.”
“Yeah, I don’t drink or smoke.”
Family genes may have helped; her mom was 97 when she passed away. Her father might have lived beyond his 63 years if it weren’t for the rock dust he breathed during his days lining wells with stacks of stone.
Despite the fact that only 5.9 percent of women make it to 100, Opal doesn’t even look a century old.
“Grandma used to get a lot of compliments all the time,” Shawna said. “When she was 80 people would say, ‘She’s 80?” because she always looked like she was like 60. She always looked super, super young.”
Does she feel 100 years old? “No, sometimes I feel older,” she replied. “No but I don’t feel like a hundred. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought I’d live this long.”
The sorrowful part of living as long is that there is nobody left to share memories with.
“As old as I am, everybody else has already died around my age and it gets on me sometimes.”
Century of changes
To say Opal has seen lots of changes over her century of living would be an understatement. Technology has changed from the days when she was dazzled by a new table top invention that she first saw advertised in the 1930s.
“I remember seeing, at the movies, it showed a box people talking in it and I thought it was just a box. But it was a radio and that radio cost me $10 from Montgomery Ward. I paid $2 down and $2 a month.”
Shawna and I marveled at having to put a whopping purchase of $10 on layaway until Shawna noted, “That would be like hundred bucks today.”
Her first TV was a black and white purchased when living in the Whitmore Avenue house.
She’s also noted changes in behaviors and shakes her head at the lack of respect and destruction of some young people today.
Opal pretty much stays to her house, which she has lived in since 1968 when she was the first buyer of it. When family comes over she likes to play dominoes and card. She also loves to read Amish romance novels on the iPad.
Her children who are close by check in on her and a granddaughter lives with her and cares for her. She quickly can answer that she has 18 but all bets are off if you ask how many greats and great-greats she has.