Thursday, December 01, 2005

100 Years Old Today



Today my Grandmother is 100 years old. That's her, with the cat.

Think of that - she has lived an entire century. 100 years. What an amazing thing. The world was a completely different place when Maybelle Barcelo was born.

When my Grandma was born, there were only 45 states. Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma were just territories. Not until she was 54 years old did it become the 50 states that we now know.

When she was born, Roosevelt was President. Franklin? No, Theodore. There had never been any such thing as a "World War". The first one didn't begin until she was 9. The United States didn't become involved until she was 12. It ended when she became a teenager.

When my Grandma was born, television wasn't even an idea, let alone a reality. Hell, radio as an entertainment was unheard of when she was born. The telephone was a relatively new device and only 8% of US homes had one. When you needed to send news, you may have relied on the telegraph.

There were no such things as commercial airplanes in the air overhead. The Wright Brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk only two years previously. So, you drove everywhere, right? Yeah, if you had a horse. There were approximately 8,000 cars in the US, and only 144 miles of paved roads.

In the year of my Grandma's birth, 1905, the second World Series was played. The Red Sox, with Cy Young pitching, had won the first one, two years earlier. By the time my Grandma was 13 years old, in 1918, the Red Sox had won 5 of the 14 World Series that had been contested. The Sox had won more than 1/3 of the World Series ever played. They were the winningest team in baseball history. When she turned 99, last year, they had managed to win another one. The Celtics? The Bruins? The Patriots? No, no, no. Let's take it further. The NFL? The NBA? The NHL? Non-existent.

Movies were not a mass entertainment at all. The first movie theatre in the country - that is, a building specifically made for showing motion pictures - opened in Pittsburgh the year she was born. What motion pictures there were, were silent. Sound would not come to the movies for another 22 years.

CDs, cassette tapes, records? Fuggedaboudit. You wanted to hear music, you pretty much had to go find a band playing somewhere. There were some cylinder recordings and a few of the newer flat records, but the Gramophone (or Victrola) wouldn't be introduced until 1906, so most folks didn't have the ability to play them. It was some 30 years before the invention of the electric guitar.

The outhouse was not a total anomaly. There were quite a few houses in the United States without indoor plumbing. Only 14% of US homes had a bathtub. Considering a slightly more delicate matter, there was no commercial production of feminine hygiene products. Kotex, the first major brand marketed, did not make its appearance on shelves until after World War One. And, birth control? What the heck is that?

Coca-Cola still contained Cocaine. Heroin, Morphine and Marijuana were available at any of your larger drugstores, over the counter. There were NOT cities full of addicts making it a daunting task for good folks to walk the streets without fear of being mugged for drug money. Now, they're illegal and... well, you know. On the other hand, many thousands of people died from the flu each year, as well as tuberculosis. Penicillin was just bread mold. The third leading cause of death in the United States was diarrhea - no joke.

Women didn't have the right to vote until my Grandma was 17.

When my Grandma was born, the average life expectancy in the United States was forty-seven. She sure has beaten the heck out of that statistic.

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Some folks would wonder just what my Grandma thinks of all the changes that have happened since she was born. I guarantee you that she doesn't spend much time thinking about it. That's one of the secrets to her longevity, I think. My Grandma is one of those folks who let little or nothing bother her. She is, without a doubt, the least aggravated person I have ever known.

I once mentioned this to my mother. I said, "You know, Mom, I don't ever remember Grandma being mad. Is it just me? Have you ever seen her really angry?" My Mom said that she really could not remember a time when my Grandma was steaming mad. In all the time I've known her, which is 48 years, I've only seen her either smile or, at most, have a look of indifference. I don't believe I've ever seen her cry, although I'm sure she has. I've probably said more swears during the course of my writing this piece than she has uttered in her entire life. I've never heard her curse, even once. My Mom doesn't curse, per se, but she uses substitute words, such as "fudge" or "shoot". My Grandma doesn't even use those.

Understand this, though - she has certainly had reason to use some pretty strong words. Some folks who had her life might have invented completely new swear words.

She lost her left eye just before her first birthday. A clock fell from a mantle and the corner of it punctured her eyeball. She's had a plastic eye ever since then. That hasn't stopped her from being one of the most marvelous artists I know. She has no depth perception, yet she paints and crochets and does mosaic work - beautifully. There is absolutely no indication in any of her work that she has vision in only one eye.

She has had a number of operations, any one of which might have made other folks bitter (or at least extremely sad) for years afterward. Not my Grandma. She had a mastectomy a few years back. She has false teeth. Her gall bladder long ago went the way of the dodo. She's had a couple of procedures involving her intestines. Add a hysterectomy, sometime in the 1940's. And the plastic eye, of course. On top of that, she's quite deaf. But none of it stops her. Or stops her from smiling.

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The only thing that's slowed her in any significant way is the stroke she suffered 5 years ago, at the age of 95. Thankfully, it caused little physical damage. However, it took away her ability to sing. This was important because, until that time, she had been singing regularly.

There was this bar in Quincy called Mr. C's that she and my mother went to, along with my stepfather, Bill. There were quite a few folks of their age, or perhaps a bit younger, who came out once a week to gather around the piano and sing some standards. My grandmother was a regular. However, don't get the idea that she was some sort of senior barfly. Sure, she'd have a drink (a sombrero was her choice) but at other times during the week, they would take this show on the road to various nursing homes and retirement facilities, along with good friends and great musicians Rose Ryder and Bill Bemus. Yes, in her nineties my Grandma was going around and entertaining nursing home patients.

Except for her age, this was not an unusual activity for her. She had been volunteering at such residences for more than thirty years - since her mid-sixties, when my Grandfather died. She was, as a matter of fact, the Volunteer of the Year for the state of Massachusetts in 1978. Of course, she didn't get an award like that for just singing and dancing. She taught arts and crafts to the patients, as well as helping with transportation and other things. She did this, for many years, all day, every day. The award she received did not make her rest on her laurels. In 1995, she was nominated as "Elderpreneur of the Year" for her various volunteer activities. She was 90 at the time.

You might be thinking, "How nice that she started doing this type of stuff when her husband died. It must have helped to fill the void his absence left behind." Well, yes, perhaps. However, volunteering and doing community work was hardly something new for her. Many years previously, she had been instrumental in starting the first Girl Scout troop in her town of Weymouth. She worked in entertaining many servicemen, in hospitals and service clubs, following World War One. This was with her older brother, Louis, who did magic and ventriloquism, and her younger sister, Gerry, who also sang and danced. She also entertained service folk at her home throughout the years. There are quite a few veterans who would gladly tell you how much my Grandma and her family's hospitality meant to them during a tough time in their lives.

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One of the more interesting stories about my Grandma was how she finagled dancing lessons for herself when she was a young woman. She couldn't afford to just take them and pay for them, so what did she do? She started her own dancing school. She signed up students and then she signed up for dancing lessons from a renowned Russian ballet teacher of the time named Russikoff. She would take a lesson from Russikoff. Then, before her next lesson, she would give lessons to her students. Then she would take another lesson, afterwards giving that lesson to her students, and so on. How brave and inventive was that?

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(Grandma, Aunt Jeanne, Uncle Rick, Mom (Connie) and Grandpa, Francis N. Drown)

She has kept a marvelous outlook despite some serious kicks in the face from life. As mentioned earlier, she has one eye, has had a mastectomy, a stroke, etc., and lost her husband of 43 years over one-third of her lifetime ago. She also is without one of her three children. My Aunt Jeanne, the eldest, succumbed to cancer at the age of 59. They say that one of the worst things that can ever happen to anybody is to lose a child. She had this happen when she was in her eighties. No doubt it hurt then and still does.

However, my Grandma does NOT dwell on the past. And that's probably the biggest secret to how long she has lived and how well she has lived. Whenever she brings up the past, it is NEVER to relive something bad. She remembers the good times, almost exclusively. What a wonderful way to live. What a gift to have the temperament to do so.

It helps to have helpful children, of course. My Mom, Connie, is 72. She lives just a block or so away from my Grandma, with her husband (my stepfather) Bill MacDonald. They visit regularly and help out in whatever ways they can. And my Uncle Rick, a former airline pilot (for some years now, a private investigator) lives with my Grandma. He is also a skilled carpenter and woodworker, very handy with just about any tool, so is invaluable in keeping the house and everything in it in good working order. She also has had the love of 15 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren, and even one great-great-grandchild.

Still, my Grandma is as self-sufficient a person as you could hope to find for her age. She wouldn't have it any other way. She still drove at age 95. She had to give that up when she suffered the stroke, but before then she'd still go shopping for her groceries and run other errands herself. If I know her, she probably expects to do so again someday.

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(Grandma, with unidentified future writer, circa 1957)

My own memories of my Grandma are pretty pedestrian stuff, I suppose. I remember nice meals when I visited. For some reason, I remember almost always having lamb at their house. I remember her driving to meet my Grandpa at the train station after his workday (he was the senior claims attorney for the MBTA), me in the back seat, and then going back to her place. Sometimes when I visited, she'd take me to a bakery near her house and buy a half-dozen cupcakes. I remember the marvelous aromas of baked bread and the desserts at that bakery, and the way my Grandma would let me pick out my own cupcake (I always took one with chocolate frosting.) I remember the interesting mix of smells that Beechnut peppermint gum and Winston cigarettes would make. She chewed one and smoked the other - you can probably guess which.

Oh, yeah. She smoked until she was well into her seventies. It appears to have had little lasting effect. I sure as hell hope I've inherited those genes.

She has always loved cats and has pretty much always had one. When I was growing up, it was Mugsy, a big all-black tomcat that my Uncle Rick found abandoned as a kitten. Nowadays it's Dennis The Menace, another big black tomcat that I can't remember how he came to be there.

She always saved the Sunday funnies for me, from her local newspaper that we didn't get in Dorchester. It was a special treat when I went there to visit and got to read those full-color pages on a weekday.

She was a huge Bruins fan for a while. I don't know why. Of course, during that time period (the 70's) there were few people who weren't Bruins fans in New England. If there was a Bruins game on when you visited, she'd be watching it. I don't remember her ever being a sports fan before or since.

She used to do things with acrylics and with polished stones. She had this sort of motorized canister than tumbled stones until they became really smooth and beautiful, and she used to use these stones to create marvelous works of art, combining painting with the stones and with other bits and pieces to create seascapes. And with the acrylics, she'd make these lovely lamps, full of color and really eye-catching. And then there was her sewing and knitting. She made pillows and comforters and other usefully pretty objects. These things were, of course, on top of her painting and needlework and crocheting and singing and cooking and houseplants and volunteer work and...

And I get tired just thinking of it, never mind doing it. She was (and is) an amazingly talented and inspiring woman.

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She is also one of the most moral people I know. She doesn't thump a bible in your face or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I don't know the last time she was in a church other than for a wedding or a funeral, although I suspect she says her prayers at night. She just lives right. She knows what's fair and what's unfair. She has never, and I mean never, shown anyone even the slightest prejudice because of skin color or religion or political leanings. When it comes to people, she is absolutely blind to anything other than their humanity. Just as I've never heard her swear, I've also never heard her use any sort of pejorative in her description of someone.

(left: Maybelle and her younger sister, Gerry)

Some of this may be due to her own ethnicity. She is, as a Barcelo, of Hispanic background (I am also, of course, though you certainly can't see anything but the Irish in my pasty skin.) She tells the story of her mother having been left by her mother with someone (possibly a relative, but nobody is quite sure) and then never seeing her again. This person treated her as a servant and she lived for a while in slave quarters in the south. No doubt this would tend to have an effect on a person's way of treating others and this was probably passed on to my Grandma and her siblings.

Then again, it just may be that she's a nice person without any mitigation. It happens.

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I suppose it goes without saying that I love my Grandma. Beyond that, though, in so many ways, my Grandma is my hero. She has done more, with what she's been given, than anyone else I know. I treasure the time I spend with her now and the times I have spent with her in the past. I couldn't have asked for a Grandmother, made to my specifications, who could possibly have been more perfect than the one that I have.

Happy 100th Birthday, Grandma. God willing, many more.


4 comments:

CatPants said...

This is a wonderful, touching post. You are truly blessed. I wish your Grandman many many more birthdays! :-)

Lucy MacDonald said...

Hi Jim
Thanks for this great post. I've included it in the Positive Carnival at Positive Perspectives.

The Happy Feminist said...

This post has been featured in the Carnival of Feminists at

http://happyfeminist.typepad.com/happyfeminist/2005/12/holly_at_self_p.html

Live and Learn the Hard Way said...

This is my favorite. It reminds me of all of the wonderful reasons B has for taking care of his own Grandma everyday. You can't not love a guy who loves and respects his Grandma!