Jeff Jardine: Last house left on Modesto block will stay as long as 105-year-old tenant lives

03/01/2014 7:06 PM

03/01/2014 8:18 PM

All of the other houses on the 500 block of Hermosa Avenue are gone, razed one by one after their former owners or tenants either moved or expired. Someday, the Gallo Glass plant will expand onto the land it began acquiring decades ago.

But not while Melvina “Molly” Reyna is alive. She lives in the last home standing, with her grandson and her caregiver. When she sold the 942-square-foot home to Gallo Glass in 1996, the deal came with a written lease-back agreement for $475 a month, an amount she still pays today. And, grandson Mark Reyna said, company officials verbally promised she could remain there until she died. She was in her late 80s at the time.

While she might not have outlived those who made that purported guarantee, she certainly outlasted them. Gallo spokesman John Segale said none of the company officials involved in the transaction is still with Gallo, having retired or moved on.

It seemed like a pretty safe promise at the time. After all, how could they have known she’d still be living today at 105 and counting? And still renting? And staying in an area that, over the years, has been plagued by gangs, drugs, petty crime and poverty? And that such an area could ever harbor such longevity?

“The woman behind us lived until she was 104,” Mark said. “The woman across the street was 108.”

Molly Reyna’s mind and heart have outlived her body, which held up pretty well in its own right until she was about 103.

Her secret to such a long life?

“She doesn’t believe in doctors,” her grandson said. “She won’t go to them.”

Whenever she’s fallen ill, he said, they’d call a practitioner from the Christian Science Church. Practitioners heal through prayer.

“She believes in the power of prayer,” Mark said. “Every time she’s given us a scare, she’s bounced back.”

And outlived some of the practitioners, too.

Molly’s story is an amalgamation of versions told over the years, forgotten by some or lost with those who have died. As his grandmother’s ability to communicate ebbs away, Mark admits he wishes he would have paid closer attention to the stories she once told about her youth and her heritage.

Molly is the descendant of a Chilean man who came to California during the Gold Rush in the 1850s and married a Mission Indian woman from the coast. They ended up in Tuolumne County, where they were outsiders because they weren’t members of the resident Me-Wuk tribe, nor white. Molly was born there, was married and began a family that grew to include three boys. Two of them, sons Gilbert and Virgil, have died. Son Vincent lives in Southern California.

She and her husband divorced during the Great Depression. She moved the family to Modesto and found work in a packing shed. In the early 1970s, she bought the small home on Hermosa Avenue. She had a driver’s license but preferred to walk downtown to the Kress store on 10th Street, or to the drugstore fountain for an ice cream soda.

She collected old dolls, many of them damaged, and once thought about opening a doll hospital where she could repair and sell them. It never materialized.

She remained sharp mentally, reading the newspaper until just a couple of years ago.

“She loved to dance and she loves music,” Mark said, and specifically from the 1970s. “When we were kids, she knew all about The Who. When other kids came over, she’d talk about The Who, and they’d look at her like, ‘Whoa! How does this little old lady know so much about The Who?’ She listened to the top 20 countdown.”

No more. Her health has deteriorated to the point where she can barely communicate. She stays on the sofa in the front room 24-7, except for when caregiver Cindy Fear helps her to the commode and back. She is an incurable chocoholic, and at 105, who cares?

Last fall, Gallo offered to pay her $4,000 plus expenses if she would move so it could raze the home. The area just north of the glass plant is not part of E.&J. Gallo Winery’s planned new office building along Santa Rita Avenue a few blocks away. No matter. Moving her now isn’t an option, her grandson said.

“She’s too fragile,” Mark said.

He has his own physical problems. Mark, who is 58 and once worked at the winery, said he is battling esophageal cancer and will soon begin radiation treatments. He understands that once his grandmother passes, the deal is off. The lease is in her name. He will need to find a new place to live.

But she won’t, Gallo spokesman Segale said. “There are no efforts or plans to move Molly,” he said.

Indeed, she can stay there until the end, the oldest living tenant on the block. In fact, she is the only tenant in the only house left on the block.

That is staying power.

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