LINCOLN — Futurists and the soothsayers of health care predict advances in medical science will one day make people like her much more common. But for now, the ranks of people walking the planet like Edna Mae Boudreau are decidedly rare.
She is extraordinarily old.
And she’s marking another milestone today. She turns 108.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” says her son, Gerard “Bud” Boudreau of North Smithfield. “I never thought I’d meet anyone who was 108 years old, let alone my own mother. And to be able to communicate with her and have her be so sharp, well, it’s just amazing.”
The year Edna Mae was born, Roosevelt was president — Teddy, that is — the Wright brothers completed the maiden voyage at Kittyhawk, and the Ford Motor Company sold its first Model A.
“I liked Roosevelt,” says Edna Mae — but she’s not talking about Teddy. She means Franklin Delano. She also liked JFK, but she just shrugs her shoulders when you ask if she was dazzled by other political stars in her day.
Wrapped in a thick, tan cardigan over a dark, flowered housedress, Edna Mae dipped into her memories a few days ago from her room in The Holiday, a nursing home in Manville. Her blue eyes seem a little cloudy, but they haven’t lost their twinkle of cheerfulness, and Edna Mae looks straight at you with them when she talks.
Unexpectedly, she let out a delicate sneeze and reached into her housedress for a tissue.
“I’ve got a cold,” she explains. “And I can’t seem to get rid of it.”
It’s hardly surprising to find a person of 108 living in a nursing home. What is surprising, however, is how long Edna Mae has been living here — which isn’t long at all.
She says she just arrived in August. Until then, she’d been living in her own apartment in a multi-family house in North Smithfield she shared with her son and his wife, Jacqueline Boudreau, for many years.
Edna Mae was sitting in a wheelchair next to her bed, but it’s as much for the convenience of her caregivers at The Holiday as for her. She still gets around just fine in a walker.
“I like it here,” says Edna Mae. “It’s a nice place. I got a nice room with a window I can look out.”
People often ask Edna Mae for the secret of her longevity, but she doesn’t really know what to tell them. For much of her adult life, actually, Edna Mae was a rather frail person, weighing around 80 pounds.
For reasons as mysterious as her grade-A longevity, it wasn’t until Edna Mae had reached her late 90s that her weight suddenly shot up a bit. She’s just over 100 pounds now, though still a slight woman.
Edna Mae says she never smoked tobacco, drank alcohol or indulged in rich foods. “I took care of myself,” she boasts. But she wasn’t any sort of health nut, either.
She never did any sort of structured exercise until she was about 100 years old, when she began a regimen of deep knee bends and stretching. Her doctor told her it would be good for her strength and muscle tone.
Bud thinks the most promising spot to look for the key to his mother’s durability is in her genes. She has a sister, Alice Pretto, also a resident of The Holiday, who is 94 years old. She had another sister, Doris Ethier, who lived to the age of 102, and still another, who lived to be 96.
Bud’s 77 years old and Edna Mae’s only son. He’s got his fingers crossed some of the hereditary longevity juice is flowing through his veins, too, but he has his doubts. After all, neither of Edna Mae’s parents, Georgianna Dion and Alexander Boudreau, lived to be particularly old.
WHAT’S ALL the more remarkable about Edna Mae’s life is that it hasn’t just been long — it hasn’t been particularly easy.
It is a truism of Blackstone Valley lore that the descendants of the many French-Canadian migrants who settled in the region often had huge families, a reflection of their agrarian roots and, perhaps, Catholic traditions. Neither of Edna Mae’s parents came from Canada; her mother was born in Fall River, Mass., her father, Woonsocket.
But that didn‘t keep them from growing one of those legendarily sprawling families so common in these parts around the turn of the century. Edna Mae was one of 17 siblings, including 10 girls, among whom she was the youngest.
“We all got along good,” she recalls. They all lived just over the Woonsocket line, off Farm Street, in a house overlooking a cemetery in East Blackstone. When she was 15, Edna Mae moved in with an aunt in Woonsocket and went to work in a mill where handkerchiefs were produced. Edna Mae took private sewing lessons after work and eventually became an expert seamstress.
For a time Edna Mae lived in Constitution Hill, one of Woonsocket’s oldest neighborhoods and one that today, anyway, shows the ravages of time. Back then, Edna Mae says Constitution Hill was a grand place, a densely packed enclave of spic-and-span row houses and tenements. The city kept the sidewalks clean and made sure that the manure from the horses, still widely used for travel and hauling, was cleaned up on a regular basis. Mill work was not only grueling; for many, it was also dangerous, says Edna Mae.
Her father was a knitter, a specialty that was notorious for claiming body parts. One day he got his hand caught in a knitting machine and three of his finger were chopped off. Edna Mae did not keep the job at the handkerchief factory long. She left
as soon as she found out they were paying better at the U.S. Rubber Company on Singleton Street.
She worked there 10 years, then took a break for a while to raise a son. She went back to U.S. Rubber on the eve of World War II, when the mill began making life rafts and boots for the military.
When the Japanese surrendered, she remembers the foreman told all the workers to go outside to have their photograph taken together. By the time she retired in 1964, she wasn’t outfitting soldiers anymore.
Those soldiers who had come home from Europe and the Pacific were busy making babies, and Edna Mae was busing making sneakers for those babies.
They called them Keds — canvas sneakers that rank right up there with hula hoops and Captain Kangaroo as touchstones of a post-war generation that came to be known as baby boomers.
Edna Mae never cared much for automobiles, at least not enough to ever get behind the wheel of one of those contraptions.
Her entire life, she shunned motor vehicles, using public buses to get around, or her own two feet.
But Edna Mae didn’t forego all the conveniences of modern life. She had a television set and enjoyed Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a program from the ‘40s and 50s often credited with inspiring today’s uber-popular “American Idol.” She liked “I Love Lucy” and Uncle Miltie, too. Edna Mae thinks today’s TV programs are more entertaining, though. One of her favorites is “Two and a Half Men.” Another is “Everybody Loves Raymond.” She watches them in her room at the nursing home regularly.
But she might not get a chance to tune in today. She’ll be celebrating her birthday with family and friends in The Holiday‘s rec hall, noshing on pastries from Federal Hill and other treats, says Bud Boudreau.
Of course, most of the friends will be his and his wife’s, as Edna Mae has outlived most of her own.
That’s just the way it is when you’re 108.