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When, on Tuesday, I asked Joy Saunders how things were going for her in the midst of the pandemic, she said pretty much like everybody else.
“Everybody’s life is on hold,” she said, before adding, “of course, mine can’t be on hold for too long.”
Then, over the phone from her home in Lunenburg, she laughed, in the way that made me laugh right along with her.
This Halloween, you see, Saunders turns 102.
When she was born on Oct. 31, 1918 — the daughter of a soldier and a Red Cross worker, both Canadians who were serving in England during the final days of the First World War — the Spanish flu epidemic was at its deadliest.
She has no memories of that pandemic, which had mostly run its cruel course by the end of 1920.
But some things of the COVID-19 lockdown, a century later, seem familiar: when she grew up in England and later Canada, when houses were quarantined after an outbreak of measles, mumps or some other communicable disease.
The hoarding of food and toilet paper that occurred early in the pandemic reminded her of the way, at the start of the Second World War, panicked shoppers raced to stores in Canada thinking starvation was just around the corner.
Of course, then, as now, Queen Elizabeth II, took to the airwaves to bolster people’s spirits.
“Did you see her? She was wonderful,” she said of the English monarch who served in the military during the war.
So did Saunders, a general’s daughter, who became a lieutenant after joining the Canadian army and ended up commanding a platoon of the Canadian women’s army corps in Yorkshire, England, during the latter part of the Second World War.
“My sentiments are much the same as hers.”
By that she means that she gets “a little annoyed” when she hears people complaining about lost jobs and shrinking bank accounts. The governments of Canada and Nova Scotia are “doing what they can,” she said, and we “are fortunate to live where we live.”
She’s particularly lucky, she told me. A good friend, for example, lives in a nursing home in Halifax, and can’t see her daughters or anyone else since the lockdown began.
But Saunders still lives in the same home in “old town” Lunenburg, where she has lived for the past 35 years. A daughter — she has another one along with six sons — came down from Ontario during March break, and is staying with her for the foreseeable future.
The other day, some great-grandkids who live in Lunenburg came over and ran around on her front lawn for a while.
“My life hasn’t really changed that much because of the pandemic,” she said.
Though with very limited vision, she reads books on her iPad, “nothing too intellectual,” she said, although recent reading did include a memoir by former chief justice of Canada Beverley McLachlan who, Saunders said, “writes so easily."
She looks out the window onto her well-appointed street where she gets out daily for her socially distanced walk.
Recently, when someone in the community asked for folks to raise a flag to show unity during the COVID-19 crisis there was Saunders, as you see her in the photo accompanying this article, standing under the Maple Leaf on the flagpole outside of her home.
So, at 101 she is full of life, even if she says that hers hasn’t been particularly eventful, although, she added, “I didn’t do anything terribly wrong.”
After the war she and her husband, a Woolworth’s store executive, moved to Montreal, where Saunders did some modeling for a women’s wear store, before they were transferred to New Waterford.
Cape Breton, she said, is where her heart is: that’s where she raised her eight kids in a big house on Whitney Avenue in Sydney, and where the family still gathers at a family compound in Margaree Harbour.
When her husband died at just 65, she moved to Lunenburg, where a daughter and her family lived. When I asked if she ever remarried she said, “I never should have moved to Lunenburg. There are no men here.”
When, in straight man-fashion, I said there was still time for romance in her life, I could see her waving her hand dismissively across the phone line: “I think it’s a bit late for me,” she said. “Besides I don’t like the look of 101-year-old men.”
She’s not a worrier she told me: her kids — some of whom are now retired — grandkids and great-grandchildren know to follow the rules and “behave themselves.”
Most of her friends “have had the good sense” to die by her age. “I’m in the departure lounge”, she said, but the plague, so far “hasn’t come in.”
At her age she said the possibility of that happening doesn’t bother her, “although I wouldn’t want to pass it on to anyone else.”
Then we made a date to get together when all of this is over. When we will be able to sit there in the same room, face-to-face, and she can tell me more about her ‘’uneventful’’ life.