Tuesday, December 01, 2009

104 Years Old Today

This is basically the same piece I’ve run on this date for the past five years. I first put it out here when my grandmother had her 100th birthday. Today she is 104.

There isn’t much I’ve had to change within the piece each year. A few numbers, of course, as each year adds one to everything, but other than that, not a heck of a lot of work for me to do.

(I notice one trivial bit that gets me thinking. I am now 52, while Grandma is 104. It has taken me this long to reach exactly half her age. This means I can expect at least another 52 years if I have her genes. I suppose this is good news for me, not so much for fans of good writing.)

If you haven’t read this before, I think you’ll like it. She has lived a very full and interesting life. On top of that, the changes that have occurred during the course of her lifetime are fairly amazing. The history lesson alone is worth the time.

I don’t suppose I need to say anything else to set it up. Enjoy, and I’ll be back tomorrow with something new.


Today my grandmother is 104 years old. That's her, with the cat.

Think of that - she has lived an entire century, plus. 104 years. What an amazing thing. The world was a completely different place when Maybelle Barcelo was born.

When 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 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 grandmother's birth, 1905, the second World Series was played. The Red Sox, with Cy Young pitching, had won the first two years earlier. By the time 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, they had managed to win another one, and then when she was 102, again. The Celtics? The Bruins? The Patriots? No, no, and no. Let's take it further. The NBA? The NHL? The NFL? 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 homes in the United States without indoor plumbing. Only 14% of US houses 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 Grandma was 17.

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

Some folks might wonder just what my grandmother 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. 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 52 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.


The only thing that's slowed her in any significant way is the stroke she suffered 9 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 Grandma was traveling around 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 before, she had been instrumental in starting the first Girl Scout troop in her hometown 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. In addition, she and my grandfather also entertained service folk at their home throughout the years. There are quite a few veterans who would gladly tell you how much Grandma, and her family's hospitality, meant to them during a tough time in their lives.

One of the more interesting stories about 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?

(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 in her seventies. She lives just a block or so away from 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 Grandma. He is 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, Grandma is as self-sufficient a person as you could hope to find at 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 groceries and run other errands herself. If I know her, she probably expects to do so again someday.

(Grandma, with future blogger, circa 1957)

My own memories of 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 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 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. Most recently, it was Dennis The Menace, another big black tomcat that I can't remember how he came to be there. She doesn't have a cat now, Dennis having gone mouse hunting in heaven this past year. Always black cats, even in the photo from when she was three years old. I'm sure there will be another black cat someday. And they say black cats are bad luck. Not if you want to have a long life, apparently.

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.

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.

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 104th Birthday, Grandma. God willing, many more.

I love you.


Chris Stone said...

Very sweet post. It is amazing how many changes have happened in the past century.

Desmond Jones said...

Wonderful, Jim.

My Grandma was about three years older than yours; she only made it to 84, tho. But all of those 'historical markers' are very familiar to me - I have a photo of my Grandma, as a young girl, with a 45-star flag in the background (Taken, interestingly enough, at the home of her grandmother, in Hamilton, Ontario. . .)

Back when houses had things like coal bins and cisterns. . .

Thanks again for this. . .

Jeni said...

This is one post of yours that I definitely don't mind your repeating -year after year! As a matter of fact, I hope to see it many more times in the future!
Happy 104th Birthday -from me to your Grandmother.
(P.S. Your grandmother is only four years older that my Mom -who would have been 100 this past month but who didn't quite make it to age 70.)

Michelle H. said...

Happy Birthday, Suldog's Grandmother!

I hope you repeat this post for many, many more years.

Expat From Hell said...

Searingly good. For those of us who have lost our grandmothers, your tribute is especially rich. Thanks for doing this, Suldog. EFH

Ananda girl said...

Lovely post! Reminds me of someone I love... but I won't get into that. This is your grandma's special day. Happy birthday to her!
Just think... for 52 years she has loved you! What a treasure you have.

Hilary said...

I love this post. It's the second time I've read it and I hope to see it for several more years to come. I know you've been gifted with her big heart.. hopefully you've also inherited the longevity gene.

Happy Birthday to your wonderful Grandma.

Marian Dean said...

Wonderful tribute to one wonderful Lady.
I hope to read this again next year, with just the numbers changed!

Love Granny (junior)

Brian Miller said...

thanks for the smiles suldog...and happy birthday to gramma...

GreenJello said...

I loved reading this post again.

Although, you may be interested to know that the first commercially marketed IUD was circa 1900. :)

Unknown said...

Go Grandma! Good for her to have witnessed so many of life's ups & down and amazing changes over the past 104 years. I remember this post from last year, can't wait to read it again next year too!

Unknown said...

Since I've only been blogging about a year, I had not read your previous birthday tribute to this wonderful woman Sully, so am so glad I've had this opportunity!

Beautiful post!

Daryl said...

I loved this the last time I read it .. and I say Happy Birthday and as many more as you can stand!

lime said...

happy birthday, grandma! we all would do well to sit at your feet and learn. i could certainly learn a thing or two from her.

suldog, i am sure i don't need to tell you how blessed you are to have had such a wonderful grandma all this time.

Beryl Ament said...

Just came across your post on Maggie May's site. How lovely.It is a cause of sadness for me that my children barely knew their grandparents.

Gennasus said...

My first time reading this post, it was lovely. Your Grandma sounds like a wonderful person. Happy Birthday to her and wishing her many happy returns.

BklynSoxFan said...

Nice tribute, Suldog.

God bless your grandma.

Cricket said...

Wonderful. I've seen this post each year since I started reading your blog. Every year I've had just enough time to forget. You are truly fortunate to have had so many years together and I wish you many more.

Happy 104th Birthday, Grandma.

Jazz said...

Great post Suldog - I remember reading it last year and I loved reading it again.

The Good Cook said...

Happy Birthday Gramma - I hope you show her this post - and tall the comments, that's another historical marker you can add to her life - she's a Blog STAR!!

What an amazing woman and an amazing life. We should all be so lucky to have someone like this in our lives. AND WHAT Genes!! Good for you!

Chris said...

Great job, Jim. I love reading that one. Reminds me of my Grandma who, unfortunately, passed away in 2000 at the age of 88.

104, man, that's impressive. Here's to her health, and many more great years.

amgad said...

Great post Suldog,it reminds me with my Grandma, Happy 104 Birthday to your Grandma, I hope you repeat this post many more years.

Jackie said...

This is my first reading of your Grandmother. She is a fine lady...and the word 'lady' is used with utmost respect concerning her.
This comment is for her: Happy Birthday. May you continue to enrich others as you have done throughout your life. May your life continue to be filled with sweet memories as you continue to build upon them. May your health remain strong. God bless you, dear lady. Love to you from Jackie

Suldog said...

Thank you, All, for your kind words and best wishes. It means a lot to me to have this post be so well received. You're all wonderful folks!

Anonymous said...

What a great lady. Loved reading about her, and your memories.

Thumbelina said...

Read this last year and loved it just as much this year.
It does the soul good to stop and think and count our blessings.
Hope your Grandma had a great day and has many more to come.

Karen said...

I love this post. Your Grandma reminds me of mine. Gram was born in 1901 and passed in 2002. She lived a full, productive and independent life until the last year of her life. She was widowed at age 34 and raised 4 children ages 7-15.She was one of the most positive people I've ever known and her motto was 'live and let live'. She loved me just because I was me - unconditionally. I miss her.

Elizabeth Bradley said...

A fitting tribute for an incredibly resilient woman. How lucky you are to have such a remarkable grandmother. My dad's mother lived to be 97, she had 15 kids, they were all alive at the time of her death.

Dev said...

I loved this post. Happy Birthday Suldog's Grandma!! The world would truly be a better place if we could have more women in it like her.

Uncle Jim said...

I never tire of reading this Jimmy you are really something.

Lisa Johnson said...

What an amazing lady! I am in such awe of your Grandma that I'm just about wordless. However, please do wish her a Happy 104th from me and you can give her an extra hug too! ; )

az wufman said...

Jim, Very nice! Great tribute to a fine lady!
My great gramdma was 103 whe we lost her in '90 and the stories she told still ring in my ears and paralled your grandmas life so closely. I would sit as a child wishing I could go back to her time.
If only today people knew what they knew and did back then and learning from their knowledge.
Taking care of your own and grabbing ones self by the bootstraps and getting on with what had to be done, unlike today in most cases. Amazing how lazy we've gotten in just a century.
Friend from years ago, Stu, posted this link on his page and I'm glad I read it, made my day! Brought it even closer as I lived in Winthrop, Watertown, Quincy, then New Bedford in early 70's and know the area well.

God Bless your G'ma and many more happy years to her!


i beati said...

My grandmother passed away at 103 , a twin. Your granmother is a spectacular woman !!

Joanna Jenkins said...

Happy Birthday to your Grandma!!!! 104 is outstanding!

The stats on the World Series is something for Red Sox fans to cheer about. But I really like that your grandmother did community service for so many years. What a major difference she's made to so many lives and her community.

This was a wonderful, heart-warming post! Thanks for sharing.


Sandi McBride said...

Happy Birthday to your beautiful Grandmother. I hope you've picked her brain, recorded her voice, hugged her as often as you see her...and told her how much she means to you...but knowing you, I'm sure you've done all that and more.

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Jim...this is the first I've read this post as I am a young 'un in blogging years...but I LOVE,LOVE, LOVE this...would we all had a grandma like your!!! She is truly a phenomenal woman...no wonder you love her so!!! Happy Birthday, Grandma!!! I'm so glad to have met such an amazing and lovely lady through you, Jim!!! Hugs, Janine

Eddie Bluelights said...

What a charming tribute to your Grandmother on her 104th birthday.
She is indeed a wonderful lady and a valued citizen of planet Earth. Wish there were more like her.
May she continue in good health for more years to come and I look forward to reading an amended version of this, Jim, for her for next year.
May God bless her - and you.

Rhea said...

Sweet! A great tribute. I hope you got her genes, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Many, Many Happy Returns of the Day, Maybelle!

Carolina said...

A remarkable woman and a wonderful story. Love the photo with you as a little babyboy. Funny face!

MaggieGem said...

What a wonderful post, the love you have for your grandma shines right through. You are very fortunate to still have her!

btw got here from Hilary's

This Life Thru the Lens