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What’s It Like to Be 100 Years Old?

An Interview with Shillman House’s First Centenarian, Ethel Sugarberg

Posted: March 18, 2016

Ethel Sugarberg turned 100 years old on January 29, making her Shillman House’s first centenarian. The other Shillman residents were so excited they threw her a party with entertainment and delicious treats. Ethel does a lot of work with Jewish Family Services of Metrowest, and their Patient Navigator Program donated a bench to Shillman House in her honor. The Framingham Hadassah chapter also presented Ethel with a lovely plaque.

Jennifer Rich, Shillman House’s Resident Services Coordinator, and Jonathan Small, JCHE’s Communications Director, sat down with Ethel to hear her reflections on her life and her thoughts on turning 100. 

Ethel, what’s it like to be 100 years old?

Same as 99. I don’t feel old, if that’s what you mean. It doesn’t feel any different. I’ve lost my sight, that’s the worst part of it. Other than that, I guess I’m the same as I’ve always been. I’ll renegotiate when I turn 106. 

Can you tell us a little about when you were born and where you grew up?

I was born two years after the end of World War I. I grew up in Roxbury Crossing. That’s what it was called because the railroad ran though there. And my father had a grocery store, a variety store right near the railroad station. It was called Sammy’s, my father’s name. And we always lived near the store, so we could help him. When we were able to handle the register, we worked in the store. I had an older sister and a younger brother. And we all helped out.

Could you tell us about your parents?

My father’s name was Samuel Swartz. Swartz was my maiden name. My mother’s name was Fanny, and she worked in the store just as hard as anybody else.

What was it like working in the store?

In the beginning, it was open seven days a week. In later years, my father was able to get a license to sell beer and wine so he was closed on Sundays, which was a break for all of us. He sold mostly groceries, but he also sold 25 pound bags of coal and people used to buy a bag to put in their kitchen stove they used for cooking and heat – that was all the heat for the whole apartment. We also sold cheese and cold cuts. We had one of those slicers.

And where did you go to school?

My father’s store was on one corner and the school was on the other corner. And I went to that school from first through the eighth grade. And then I went to Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls. 

I took piano lessons. I would tell my father I needed two dollars for my piano lesson. He’d say, well, take from the register. Sometimes there wasn’t anything there to take. But I always took piano lessons and never learned a thing. I could play a song if I practiced, but I would practice like two minutes before I had my lesson. But I love music. I love to sing and I always sing.

Where else did you work?

After I got out of high school, I worked in a store that sold sundries and then I got a job as a bookkeeper in a coal and oil company that was just around the corner. And I worked there until I got married. When I was seventy, I worked a little bit in a nursery school. The woman who hired me, when she offered me the job, I said, “Do you know how old I am?” And she said, “That doesn’t matter, I want you to work.” She said, “I can’t pay you much.” I would have taken it for nothing.

How did you meet your husband?

My mother and his aunt knew each other. My mother gave his aunt our number. And he called me. And shortly after, he drove his parents to Pennsylvania and sent me a card every day. And I was showing the cards to my friend and she said, “I think he’s in love with you.” His name was Charlie. I don’t remember how he asked me to marry him. I don’t think he ever asked me. They had relatives who lived in Pennsylvania and somebody was getting married and he asked me if I would go with them to the wedding. And I said, “Well, generally, girls don’t go unless they get engaged.” And so that was it. I don’t remember him asking, but I remember he left me at my doorstep and I ran over the store and told my mother and father I was engaged.

Can you tell us about your wedding?

My wedding was at the Commodore Hotel, which burned down a few years ago and they rebuilt it into homes on Commonwealth Avenue. For our honeymoon, we went to Washington and New York. The first plane ride I took was to Washington. We stayed there for a few days and we toured the whole city and then went to New York and saw some plays.

And where did you live at that point?

At that point, we lived in Roxbury in an apartment near where my parents live, near where the store was. Then we bought a house in Mattapan, so we didn’t live in Roxbury very long. On Sundays, we had nothing to do so we used to go look at the Campanelli Homes (in Framingham). You know, I liked to see how they were furnished and the same salesman would catch me at all these places and I was embarrassed. So one day, he said to me, “You can buy the house for ten dollars down and we’ll hold it.” So I put down the ten dollars and then when we got home I said, “Why did I do that? Now I’ll have to go back to Framingham and get my ten dollars back.” And as the week went on I said, “Well, maybe it’s a good idea.” And so we moved to Framingham and lived there for 53 years.

Can you tell us about your children?

Mark and Ruth. Mark is eleven years older than Ruth. Mark was in the first four year class out of the new high school. And then he went to Emerson College for four years and ended up being a computer programmer on his own. He lives in Sharon. Ruth lives in Framingham. She has one child, Cheryl, who lives in Hudson.

So what brought you to Shillman House?

I moved here when Shillman House opened (in 2011) because I was alone by that time. Charlie was gone and the children were out. And I was alone and I said, “I can’t stay here by myself for much longer.” So I thought this would be a good idea for me. So here I am.

What do you like about living here?

It’s nice. The people here are very nice. My neighbor, she just knocked on my door to take me down to the program that they’re having. She’s a dear. We also entertain here in my apartment on Sundays. I feel safe and comfortable here. Whatever I need, I have here. There a lot of things, there’s always something going on. I like anything with music. We have music with Wendy, like we had today. Tomorrow, I’m going to have lunch with my old walking group. They still call me when they go to lunch. 

What do you remember as the happiest time in your life?

We had a trailer at one time and we used to travel. We’d travel the east coast. We were in Nova Scotia one time. And we went from Maine to Florida, Charlie and me.

What strikes you most about how the world has changed in the last 100 years?

All the new inventions and things. I remember putting a quarter in the meter for the gas light to light up the house. There was a meter up on the corner of the wall in our house and you put a quarter in and it would keep the gas light on. They’d come and collect the quarters every once in a while. A quart of milk was like 10 cents. And as the price kept going up on milk, I said, “How can they do that, raise prices on something so needy?” But they did.

What advice would you offer to future generations?

I don’t know. Just be kind to each other. Stop the wars. And sing a lot. If you sing, you’re happy.

What is your secret to long life?

There’s no secret, just get up and live. I’m a realist. I accept what I have and make the best of it.

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