Getting to 104 the laid-back way

By 
Jill S. Gross, Special to the Reporter
Oct. 1, 2009

Mary Colbert said she has never paid much attention to her age and has little idea why she’s lived so long. But the longtime Dorchester resident – who was born when Theodore Roosevelt was president – belongs to an exclusive group whose members have reached the century mark and beyond. A native of County Waterford in Ireland, Mrs. Colbert celebrated her 104th birthday in July.

Trim and with but a few wrinkles, she doesn’t attribute her longevity to anything in particular, other than God’s will and good genes. And she’s loathe to dole out advice on how to live.

“I have just lived a normal life. I just took every day as it came.”

Colbert, then 19, arrived in the United States by herself on Labor Day weekend in 1924, joining her aunt and sisters and immediately going to work doing housework, cooking, and taking care of children in Brookline, just as she and her siblings and her mother had done back in the Irish resort town where she grew up.

She has lived in Dorchester in all of the 85 years since then, watching the neighborhood change from a country-like respite from the city into the bustling urban setting it is now. “I think it is great,” she said. “I’ve lived here almost all my life.”

Although she has lived through the Great Depression, two world wars and countless technological innovations, she said she’s not the one to quantify how much life has changed. For the most part, she preferred to live a quiet, private life close to home. “I didn’t go out here, there, and everywhere,” she said.

In 1929, she married Patrick Colbert, a native of the same seaside town of Tramore in Waterford. They raised four children, Mary, Tom, and twins Claire and Therese, on Meetinghouse Hill before she moved with her son in 1977 to a two-family home near St. Brendan’s.

Patrick served in the U. S. Army in World War I and later joined the U.S. Marine Corps before going to work for the New Haven Railroad after their oldest daughter was born. For her part, Colbert mostly stayed home. She was an accomplished cook and avid baker known for her fancy desserts, especially her apple pie, snow pudding, and macaroon pudding. And she was always passionate about keeping a clean house. Pictures of her family and watercolors and photographs of the rocky Tramore seaside decorate her spotless home.

Until she was nearly 100, she could be found doing the housecleaning and climbing ladders to change curtains, her son Tom said. A hip fracture two years ago slowed her down, and she has trouble with her hearing. But her mind is sharp and she’s otherwise in excellent health, he said. Her son credits her hard work and outlook on life. “She is very resilient. She’s always gone along with things.”

Mrs. Colbert still does some sewing and washes and dries the lunch dishes most days. An avid reader, she spends a large part of her days digging into current events in the newspaper and enjoying mystery and romance novels. She also loves to watch old cowboy movies on television.

And she watches the Catholic Mass on television every day.

In 1966, the year after her husband died, Mary Colbert returned to Ireland for the first time – 42 years after she had left. “I wanted to go back to where I was born,” she said. “It surprised me, because it was a long time. I was pleased with it.”

George Kenneally, a family friend of almost 60 years who traveled with the Colberts, recalled her amazement at seeing some of the village shops from her childhood days as well as her excitement at seeing family and old neighbors, many of whom never left Tramore.

“She enjoyed and loved every bit of it,” he said, noting that she has since been back to Ireland about 30 times, most recently in 1993.

Kenneally called Colbert a great conversationalist who keeps up with what’s going on and has interesting thoughts and opinions. She has always been kind and considerate and never overbearing, he said, never one to brag or boast or say a bad word about anyone. “I love knowing her,” he said. “She is great example.”

She is known in their circle for her strong faith, Kenneally said, adding that people used to come to her and ask her to pray for sick family members. She has held onto that faith and not succumbed to depression, he said. “I find her, among the class of Irish ladies, a very, very exceptional woman. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.”

Mrs. Colbert said she gets the most joy in life from her family. In addition to her children, she has five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“I always lived my life just the way I wanted to,” she said. “I’m very happy and very content.”