Mary Colbert, centenarian: Her apron was her uniform

Mary Colbert

“I don’t think God is making them like her any more,” said Tom Colbert in speaking of his mother several days after her funeral Mass at St. Brendan’s Church late last month. “She was, I’d say, one of the last of her kind in her own right. She led a simple, forthright life.”

And a long one. Mary F. (Keohan) Colbert, a native of Tramore, Co. Waterford, Ireland, was 107 years and 7 months old on the day she died. She had been a long-time member in good standing of a truly exclusive club: the worldwide society of centenarians. United Nations experts on longevity estimate that there are about 60,000 centenarians in the US today, and about 320,000 worldwide – out of a total of some 7 billion people.

Mrs. Colbert was a woman who liked stability in all things, and the fetch of her life showed that clearly: She left her home in Ireland at the age of 19 to cross the sea to Boston, then to Dorchester where she stayed put for the rest of her days. She never looked back, never went back, never saw her mother again.

Like so many young Irish immigrant women of the early decades of the 20th century, Miss Keohan worked as a domestic in Boston, doing laundry and keeping house for wealthy families while making her way in the city’s active society of Irish on the move. “It’s quite the coincidence,” said Tom Colbert, “that my mother and father, who served in the Marines in World War I, where he was gassed, and who was a railroad man on the old New York, New Haven, and Hartford line, met and married in Boston even though they were born in the same town in Ireland.”

Mary and Patrick raised four children, three girls (two are twins), and a boy, and the marital scenario was a familiar one for the times, the 1920s and 1930s: Dad went to work, Mom stayed home, took care of the kids, and kept a clean home for her husband to come home to. When her children were grown, Mary didn’t venture out to work as many housewives were beginning to do during and after World War II; her yen for stability in play, she stayed at home into the next century, the kitchen, dining room, living room, and bedrooms making up her work place and her place of refuge.

“My mother’s lifetime job was to make a home,” said son Tom, “and that was all she wanted to do. She was sociable, got out and about, but home was where her heart was. She loved company and welcomed every relative and friend who visited with the same question: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Her apron was her uniform, and one day well into her older years, she took it off and said, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ ”

In addition to taking care of home and family, Mary Colbert tended diligently to her religious duties. A Mass-every-day Catholic who watched on TV when she couldn’t make it to church, she always carried her faith with her, said Tom, who watched over his mother in her old age as she had watched over him in his young life almost 80 years earlier. “Her rosary beads never left her hands.”

A broken hip at age 102 augured a slow decline in health and mental stability for Mrs. Colbert, who to that point hadn’t seen a hospital since her child-bearing years. In her final days, she spent time in a hospital bed, but Tom Colbert brought his mother home so that she could die where she had lived for so long and so well.

Still grieving in recalling those final days, Tom was able to chuckle in offering an anecdote: “My mother never took a drop of drink – until suppertime a few days before she died. She liked to use her walker to come into the kitchen while I was making dinner, and that night I left my full glass of CC and soda on the counter. I stepped away for a minute and when I came back and reached for the glass, it was empty.
‘Did you take that drink, Mother?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I did,’ she said, ‘and it was good.’ ”

Like the life of Mary (Keohan) Colbert.