"Isn't Life Fun?"
I had a great, great aunt who lived to 107.
That was her philosophy. She said it without a hint of sarcasm. Mary Jane Bourque. She died with all her faculties and free
of any major disease. She just went to sleep one night for the last time.
I visited her 4 or 5 times a year when I was in my 20's. We would spend the afternoon together making each other laugh. When
asked her age, she would tell you she was "going on 200." When asked the "secret" of her longevity she responded, "I smoked
all my life, I drank all my life, and I ate anything I damned well pleased, so it's nothing I did!" (I suspect her smoking
and drinking was limited to weddings and holidays.) No newspaper reporter ever dared to print her controversial answer.
told me stories about sneaking off to "dance with boys" at barn dances in native Canada back when dancing was considered "too
rough for girls."
She threw her head back and laughed aloud when anything unusual happened (e.g., someone dropping
and breaking dishes) that might upset the fellow residents of the nursing home where she spent her last years. ("Watch the
heads all pop out of the doors like Prairie dogs!") She did a unsettling but memorable impression of fellow nursing home residents
(young enough to be her grandchildren) who were depressed and negative in their demeanor.
But I knew her secret.
Her hearing was fine. Her memory was fine. She had all her teeth. No heart, blood or lung preblems. Once,
when she was thanking God for her health, I asked her why she was confined to a wheelchair. Offhandedly slapping her right
thigh with the back of her hand, she replied, "Oh, this leg stopped working about 20 years ago." That was it... her whole
answer. No tales recounting doctor visits, medications, or surgeries. The leg "stopped working". Period.
We first met
when she was 102. While researching our family tree I got stuck (out on a limb, as it were,) and my father suggested I talk
with my Aunt Mary Jane. No one had ever told me I had an Aunt Mary Jane! It turned out she was my great grandmother's sister.
I went to the nursing home where she lived and introduced myself as "a grandson of John Baptiste Cormier." As I left her room...
exhausted from the first of many afternoons of laughter... she looked at me and said, "Isn't life fun? ...when a handsome
young man walks into your room and introduces himself and your family grows by one."
Despite a life of working on
a farm in New Brunswick and later in factories in Massachusetts; despite losing her only child, a daughter, at the age of
18 to liver disease; despite outliving everyone who ever knew her during the first 90 years of her life, Aunt Mary Jane somehow
saw and appreciated the wonder and the humor and the absurdity of Life. Perhaps the most flattering compliment I was ever
paid was when I was told I had a lot of my Aunt Mary Jane in me.
Mary Jane Bourque on Marriage: "I didn't get married
until I was 40. 'Monkee see, monkey do.' They never tell you that your husband is going to expect to know all of your business...
like how much they are paying you at work!"
On Retirement: My father (who had very little sense of humor) once went
to visit Aunt Mary Jane and announced to her that he was thinking of retiring the following year. With an endearing stab at
black humor, Aunt Mary Jane put her hand on my dad's arm and said, "Oh Del... Don't retire! You won't believe how long you
have to WAIT!" She was actually right. My dad died at age 94.
On Driving a car: When Aunt Mary Jane's husband bought
his first car, only men drove cars. Driving was considered very technical plus cars had that big crank up front. Once he had
learned to drive it, Mary Jane told him to teach her. He said (in native Acadian French), "You're a woman! People will laugh
at you driving a car!" Aunt Mary Jane replied, "If something were to happen to you and I needed to get you to the hospital,
do you think I would care about people laughing at me?"
He taught her to drive.
My most memorable Aunt Mary
Jane moment: Though we spent most of our time making each other laugh, Aunt Mary Jane went soft on me one afternoon and told
me how much my visits meant to her. I wasn't a psychotherapist back then. I was a college student who sang and played guitar
on weekends. I didn't know what to say to her in response. So, I clumsily replied... "I'm glad you're in a place like this
with other people." Aunt Mary Jane made a sweeping motion with the back of her hand. "Oh! The people here? You know what they're
like? I'll be going down the hall first thing in the morning and I'll see a lady and I'll say 'Good Morning, Dear! How are
you today?' and she'll say...
At this point... Aunt Mary Jane began brushing her fingertips together and shaking her
head as if she had Parkinson's Disease. With a sad clown face and quivering lips she said, "...Not too good today."
the age of 105, my great, great aunt was doing her impression of depressed old people! She was old enough to be grandmother
to most of the residents of that nursing home! It was an awkward moment for me but I'll always remember her doing that unsettling
and bizarre impression.
Another memorable moment was when a young nurse's aide came into Aunt Mary Jane's room while
we were talking and asked in an overly-loud voice, " MRS. BOURQUE... WOULD YOU LIKE SOMETHING TO DRINK OR MAYBE A SNACK?"
Aunt Mary Jane simply replied, "No, thank you, Dear." The young woman shouted, "WELL, IF YOU SHOULD CHANGE YOUR MIND JUST
LET US KNOW."
When the girl left the room Aunt Mary Jane turned to me and grinned and said, "I'm old, not deaf!"
"Isn't life fun?"
It was a philosophy, an attitude, a coping skill, a way of travel. It was a tweak on the nose of life itself.
could all learn something from my Aunt Mary Jane.
Rick Cormier, 2008
FAIRHAVEN CENTENARIAN SPINS YARNS OF MILLS AND MILESTONES
By Susan-Pawlak Seamen
July 14, 1983
FAIRHAVEN-- She's history personified, but don't confuse Mary Jane Bourque with
any stuffy old text.
Only days before her 105th birthday on Saturday, she is full of spicy opinions on everything
from marriage to money- and doesn't yearn in the least for the bygone days.
"Changes, oh, I've seen changes-- But
they're changes for the best," says Mrs. Bourque, who lives in Our Lady's
Haven and is the town's oldest resident.
"Today you have a chance of living better... I've had a good life -- but it was a hard life." Her recollections support her
Born in New Brunswick on July 16, 1878, Mrs. Bourque was one of nine children. Her father, a farmer,
took the family to Fitchburg, MA when Mrs. Bourque was 8.
"I was a kid then, so I don't remember what he did," she
said. "He wanted to make more money, but there was no chance of having any luck there. After four years we came to New Bedford."
The French speaking family settled in a North End enclave with other French Canadians who had come to work in the
booming textile industry.
"When we came, New Bedford was building up," Mrs. Bourque recalled. "They were building
two new mills and those bridges across the river between Fairhaven and New Bedford. And, they were making railroads -- 11
miles of railroads."
It was a time when horse-drawn carts clattered along city streets. For the most part, Mrs. Bourque
traveled on foot.
While her mother stayed home to tend the children, Mrs. Bourque's father got a job in the mills.
At a tender age, she followed suit.
"The law was that after you were 12 years old, you had to have another 7 months
of school," she said. "I did that, but then I didn't lose no time. Soon as I got out of school, I got my job in a cotton mill."
She was not yet 13.
"I learned to spin... I remember we used to go in at 6 a.m. and we'd work till 12 noon.
Then we'd go for dinner and come back and work till 6 in the evening."
Her first weekly paycheck was $3.39.
was a young girl, living at home, so my father and mother got my pay," Mrs Bourque said. "Not like it is now, but that's
how we did it."
Although she didn't get to spend the money she earned, Mrs. Bourque said, "I always looked for the
dollar," adding that she soon discovered that some mills paid more than others.
At age 19 she went to work for the
Whitman Mills. "I was making $10. a week," she said, still puffed with pride at that memory.
Eventually, her parents
returned to Canada, but Mrs. Bourque stayed to work in the mills. She held mill jobs for much of her life.
40, she wed for the first and only time. The couple's only child, a daughter, died at 18 of an apparent liver ailment.
I had it to do over, I wouldn't have gotten married," Mrs. Bourque said. "Stay single and you're much better off.
even within matrimonial confines, she managed to set some groundrules. "I told my husband before we got married that he was
getting me-- but he was not going to get my pay," she said.
After her husband's death, Mrs. Bourque mostly lived alone--
except when she raised two orphan girls. "I like to help somebody," she said. "I took 'em in." Today, she doesn't know their
whereabouts. "But, you know, a child grows up to certain years, then, boom, they go."
She came to Our Lady's Haven
nursing home about nine years ago. Although she can't remember "ever bein' sick in bed," Mrs. Bourque said "a while back,
one leg just fell asleep and I can't walk on it."
Now confined to a wheelchair, she has limited mobility. But Kathy
Ferreira, Our Lady's Activities Director, said Mrs. Bourque does arts and crafts, mosaics and never misses a social gathering.
There's a big party planned to celebrate her birthday.
Extremely personable and good-natured, Mrs. Bourque
said, "I always pray not to go cranky... I ask God to save me from that trouble. I've got good eyes so I can see, good ears
so I can hear, so what else can I ask for? I'm happy."
There's one thing she admitted she can't explain-- the secret
to her longevity.
"I didn't do nothing about it-- That's the best I can tell you," she said.