Earlier this summer I was walking the Rennies River Trail between Carpasian Road and Elizabeth Avenue in St. John’s when I came across my friend, Marie Maher.
Marie was dressed sportingly with a sun visor and hiking poles. Although she looked like she had stepped out of an ad for outdoor fitness, Marie mentioned that her energy level was low, so I walked with her back to the house where she has lived for over 60 years.
She said she was worried that she wouldn’t get all her gardening done. She even wondered if she had enough energy to go golfing when her son came to visit later that week.
Did I mention Marie will be 99 years old this coming Saturday?
Marie Maher is a source of inspiration for anyone who has ever uttered the words, “I’m bored.” She is an amazingly positive person who seizes each and every day.
Born in Torbay to Mary Yeo and John Whitty on Oct. 12, 1914, just after the start of the First World War, Marie has seen a few changes in her lifetime. Two world wars, the transition from horses to motor cars, and the advent of television, not to mention the invention of computers and cellphones.
Marie acknowledges it is wonderful that we have advanced so much in the past century, but cautions that sometimes people enclose themselves in their own capsule with a cellphone and computer, or motor vehicle with a plastic bottle of water, thinking they have all the necessities of life.
“(Sometimes) I wonder where the human race is heading. … The computer has taken over our lives. … I was raised in a period when communications with other human beings were very important. Communication was your survival. We cared for each other.
“If my mother or father noticed a neighbour’s child doing or saying anything detrimental to that child’s development, they would report it to the child’s parents, who would be very grateful for the interest shown, and would take the proper channels to correct it.”
Marie has written about many of the changes she has witnessed in the last century. Here she describes her earliest memory.
“I can remember when I was three years old, my father went to the seal fishery for the first time,” she says, explaining that he was exempt from war service because he was married.
“There was a pandemic flu in the air and many people died. I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that my father was leaving home. When he was leaving, I clung to him and cried.
“The sealing ship had hardly reached the fishing grounds when some of the crew fell ill. … The sick men were offered medicine which had no effect on the flu. The crew requested the captain of the ship return to St. John’s with the sick men. He was reluctant at first, but as most of the crew had succumbed to the illness, he consented.
“When the ship arrived in St. John’s, my mother went to visit my father as they were taken from the ship to the fever hospital in St. John’s. My mother could hardly recognize my father; he was in such a frail condition. He recovered after several weeks in hospital, but had to have physiotherapy. His exercises included walking the length of the ward a few times carrying a half bucket of coal. The load was increased to a full bucket and then two buckets. His strength improved daily as a result. He arrived in Torbay in a horse-drawn covered wagon. I can still see it now — no snow, but very cold.”
Marie has happy memories of growing up on Whitty’s Lane in Torbay — especially of fishing in her family’s dory on Watt’s Pond. Marie went to a two-room school and walked a mile and a half to get there.
“Outdoor clothing wasn’t as practical as it is today,” she says. “No long coats for girls. We wore heavy wool coats which were not waterproof. Occasionally, if I was on the main road, I got a ride from the mailman, Mr. Esterbrook, who delivered the mail from St. John’s to Torbay, Flatrock and Pouch Cove. Stormy days, my father would come after school with the horse and sled and take as many children home as could find a place in the sled.
There were no snow plows, so the roads were very rough and bumpy. One day the horse was trotting along down a hill when the sled took a turn and a couple of the children landed in a snow bank. … It was so funny to see everyone covered in snow. They all looked like mini Santas.”
Later she went to Presentation Convent to study under the guidance of the nuns. Marie finished high school (Grade 11) in the midst of the Depression of the ’30s when there weren’t many professions for girls.
“I chose nursing,” she explains, “because when I was in my early teens, my mother had serious surgery at the hospital and almost succumbed. It was one of the great decisions of my life. I learned a lot and am grateful for the three years of training I received (at the Grace Hospital).
“Our basic training began with cleanliness. I thought I would have no hands left after all the hand-washing, but it certainly paid off. I can’t remember during my three years any patient leaving that hospital with an infection. The director of nursing at the time was Miss Fagner and she never missed a trick. … We were not allowed to accept a treat … from a patient when we were on duty. We worked 12 hours a day with two hours for a break during that period.
“One day … I was going off duty for my break. One of the patients offered me a chocolate. … When I got in the tunnel going to the nurse’s residence, I popped the chocolate in my mouth. I had hardly tasted it when who was coming toward me? None other than Miss Fagner. I was in a precarious position because I hardly could get the chocolate positioned in my mouth to answer when she spoke to me. I thought to myself, I am in hot water. She was very thoughtful, wished me a good day and moved on. I wasn’t reprimanded later for my misdemeanour.”
After a year of basic training, student nurses were required to affiliate at different institutions: the Waterford which was called the Asylum at the time, the Fever Hospital which treated people with meningitis, and the Sanatorium on Topsail Road where the patients with tuberculosis were treated.
“Fresh air and good food were considered cures for TB. … It was an eye-opener for me, the sight of those young men and women lying in beds with windows open and snow drifting in on their beds. We also visited Memorial University on Parade Street for lectures on nutrition given by Miss Edna Baird. I could have stayed for a full course as a dietitian. I still have a small book issued to us that is still quite useful in today’s world.”
After successfully completing her registered nursing exams, Marie got a position in Burin working in a cottage hospital for a year.
“It was a small hospital but well equipped for the period. There was one doctor, two RNs, nursing assistants, cooks, janitors, a business manager and a laundry operation room. I enjoyed the experience. We did maternity and surgery clinics for outpatients, especially from the communities of Placentia Bay.”
After her year in Burin, she returned to St. John’s to marry a policeman named Frank Maher (Sept. 1, 1942) with whom she had three children; a boy named John (1943) and two girls, Marilyn (1948) and Noreen (1952).
“The best sound in the world is the scream of a new baby,” Marie says.
Marie stayed at home with her children until all three were settled in school. She then applied for a position in a new senior’s nursing home on Portugal Cove Road called Hoyles Home. She nursed there until the age of 65 when she retired as head nurse on West 1.
By that time her husband had also retired from the Department of Finance, where he had been seconded when Newfoundland entered Confederation.
“There was a new three per cent tax on all goods and services with some exceptions. My husband’s duty was to visit and instruct the different businessmen on the tax collection.”
In their retirement, Marie and Frank took up square dancing and sang in a choir called the Silver Chords. They also took painting lessons at the Trades College (now College of the North Atlantic) and the walls of their home are covered with paintings of Torbay and flowers.
Marie says she didn’t experience true loneliness until 1999, when Frank succumbed to cancer of the prostate. By then they had been married more than 50 years.
“Being left alone without your partner is like being left alone with only a down comforter,” Marie says, adding that she has always strained to remain positive and independent.
“My children were very helpful. They visited when possible and helped me adjust to my new widow status. You can’t really understand the feelings until it happens to you. I believe in destiny. I am of the opinion that all living creatures have a place in society. There is a time for birth and a time for death. It happens every day. In spite of all the words of wisdom from family and friends, life goes on regardless of how you cope with it.”
“Old age,” Marie warns, “… appears out of the blue. A total surprise when it happens. … I could moan and groan to everyone I meet who wants to hear a tale of woe. Don’t think you are the only pebble on the beach. Every human being has their own problems to deal with. We were given life to enjoy. … Youth is not a time in life; it is a state of mind. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, fear: these are the things that turn the spirit to dust. Whether you are 90 or 19, there is, in every human being, the love of life.
“Enjoy the real world each day.”
Marie says she believes in taking care of herself.
“I plan and organize my schedule before I go to bed. I go to St. Pius X Church whenever possible for a half hour of meditation. … Then I get groomed and have a healthy breakfast of warm fibre cereal, a fresh orange and a cup of green tea. I tidy my bedroom. I must keep up appearances (as) I have to give my senior friends some competition. They are a wonderful group. After mass at St. Pius X, approximately a dozen of us (sometimes) go to McDonald’s on Torbay Road for coffee or tea (where) we discuss the news of the day.
“McDonald’s staff checks our birthdays and on our special day they offer a little lunch to bring home and sing “Happy Birthday.” Reg and Shirley and other staff members and customers join in the celebration.”
Up until this summer, Marie also played bridge and gardened and walked whenever possible. But all that changed in late August.
“The wasps changed my life,” she says, referring to a nest she disturbed near her back door. The wasps swarmed her and she took a tumble. Since then, Marie has back pain and moved into Tiffany Towers for the winter. Still, she remains positive as she reflects on the past century.
“I am never alone or nervous,” she says. “There is always an invisible spirit guiding me.”
So, on Oct. 12, raise a glass for Marie Maher’s 99th. Get out on the Rennies River Trail or do some light gardening and think about her ever-positive attitude.
Susan Flanagan is a journalist who will celebrate Marie Maher’s 99th birthday on Oct. 12. She can be reached at email@example.com.