NORTH SMITHFIELD — Helen Carter doesn't seem to be much older than Social Security retirement age when you meet her.
She has a part-time job at the L'il General Store on Great Road where she makes sandwiches twice a week and she also loves to get her workouts in at Curves on Eddie Dowling Highway on a regular basis.
But on Friday, Carter hit a milestone in life that her boss and friends at L'il General couldn't overlook.
When she showed up for her 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. shift, Carter found the store decorated with banners and flowers celebrating her 90th birthday.
Store owner Lisa Pestana and her sister, Paula Lussier, went in at 2 a.m. to get the store ready for Carter's big day and the surprise was a complete one for the active senior.
“I didn't know until they put the lights on before we opened this morning,” she said. The best part was seeing all the decorations around the store and the yellow roses honoring her big day.
Carter makes chicken, ham, seafood, and tuna salad sandwiches and also the Italian grinders sold at the store and helps clean-up before heading off to other stops on her day's schedule.
On Friday, she was planning to work out at Curves for a while, making her rounds of the exercise machines, before going home to Folett Street to help a friend.
“I have a neighbor who doesn't do shopping and I help her with whatever she needs,” Carter, who just renewed her license to drive, said.
Later in the afternoon, she planned to stop in at her son Ronnie's business, Lindy's Tavern on School Street, to see if he needed help with anything. Sometimes, she will go to the store to pick up items needed by the business' kitchen, she said.
Keeping busy is as much a part of Carter's longevity as is her advice to take a teaspoon of cod liver oil each day.
Her husband Fred W. Carter, a stone cutter by trade, died in 1997. Carter also lost one of her and Fred's seven children, her second son Freddie, to action in the Vietnam War back in 1969.
Becoming a Gold Star mother is a very difficult thing, Carter recalled. “Oh, it was, when they come to your door, let me tell you you never realize how hard it will be,” she said.
But her experiences in life have shown her that you must keep moving no matter how difficult it becomes.
“You've got to go on with your life, that's all you can do,” she said. “You can't dwell on things. You've got to keep going if you want to survive,” she said.
Having a big family-- her children, Frank, Ronnie, Tom, Helen Lavallee, Ruth Gaudreau, and Lydia Lapierre, and their families-- gives Carter plenty of opportunities to keep active beyond her job and hobbies. She has 10 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. And she has lots and lots of friends.
“You've got to keep busy,” she said while talking about her work and interests in reading books and completing puzzles and word games.
Lisa Pestana said Carter's primary responsibility at the store is making the sandwiches but she also serves as an effective store ambassador to the regular customers coming in when she works.
“I love her,” Pestana said. “Even if she wasn't so helpful I would have her around because she is such a wonderful person,” Pestana said.
Judi Lalumiere, who works as store clerk on Carter's days at the store, described the senior as a good example for others.
“She's amazing. I hope when I am 90 I look like that,” Lalumiere said. Her personality carries over into her work and when she makes her sandwiches, “she makes them with love,” Lalumiere said.
Carter's friends stopping in on Friday included Jamie Harris, who likes to call her “Grams.” Harris has worked at the store in the past and she has always been amazed at how young Carter seems. “It's amazing. You can't even tell she is 90 at all,” Harris said.
Jenny Belisle stopped by with her father and store regular, Paul Belisle, and her eight-week-old son, Logan, to help Carter celebrate. “We just wanted to come by to say happy birthday,” Belisle said. “She is great. Always happy and cheerful, always loving life,” she said.
Paul Belisle said he likes hearing advice from Carter and has even tried her cod liver oil recommendation for longevity. “You can't go wrong taking a tip from her,” he said.
The celebration included a decorated cake for Carter's special day that was offered to those stopping by and ended up largely consumed by the time she reached the end of her shift. She also handed out a few of the 90 yellow roses Pestana brought in for her party along with the decorative balloons and banners.
Carter chocked it up as another great experience in an active life. She recalled how she didn't drive until she turned 45 and her son, Frank, put a car in the backyard and said she should get her license to use it.
She got the book for the test and began to study, she remembers. “I didn't waste any time and in two weeks I had my license,” she said. “It was the best thing I ever did,” Carter recalled.
Carter and her husband later took on delivering two newspapers in the area as a part-time job and her driving helped with the more distant portions of their routes.
Even with turning 90, Carter said she doesn't want to stop and hopes to keeping working at L'il General for many years to come.
“Oh, I definitely want to do this as long as I can. I'll do this when I'm 100,” she said while not joking in the least.