Lois Poinier: God is ... in my garden

Lois Poinier, 94, of Mystic, laughs after performing show tunes in the Oasis Room at the Garde Arts Center recently. In the 1930s, Poinier sang in New York City nightclubs and studied drama and improvisational theater with the noted Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya.
Lois Poinier, 94, of Mystic, laughs after performing show tunes in the Oasis Room at the Garde Arts Center recently. In the 1930s, Poinier sang in New York City nightclubs and studied drama and improvisational theater with the noted Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya. Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Buy Photo

"I've always had something I've wanted to do. That's why I can't imagine why some of these people sit around, they get all bent over with these pushcart things. ... Yes, my back kills me, but when I get out I can get down on my hands and knees and work in the garden.

"And they say, 'How do you do that?' 'Well,' I say, 'if you don't do it, you can't do it.'"

So says Lois Poinier when asked what keeps her going. And she explains her no-nonsense view of life this way:

"Well, my mother was a very wonderful person ... and Mother's philosophy was 'when things are bad, don't sit around and feel sorry for yourself; get out and do something for somebody else.'"

Not that Poinier is lacking in compassion. It's just that, at 94, she's lived long enough to bury a husband, children, grandchildren and friends. And to bury her childhood dream.

That dream was born when her mother took her to see the legendary Maria Jeritza (The Moravian Thunderbolt) and Giovanni Martinelli in a performance of "Carmen" at the Metropolitan Opera. Young Lois left the opera house smitten: Someday she, too, would be an opera star.

"I had a good friend in Short Hills (N.J.) where we lived who also loved the opera," Poinier remembers. "We used to play in the garden, pretending we were opera singers and whatnot."

Poinier never set foot on stage at the Met, but she did have a short career as a nightclub singer. She sang with Joe Moss's Orchestra at the Elysee and at Armando's, "and I was all set to go to the Stork Club with this trio that we had, but I lost my voice ... because of the smoke. Oh, it was terrible."

Back in those days, she remembers, everybody smoked, and the air in the nightclubs was so thick "you could cut it with a knife ... I didn't like to smoke; I never have. And my father always said, 'If you want to smoke, go ahead, be a damned fool.' He'd never smoked; neither did my mother, and so I was the curiosity of the age."

Asked to recall some of her repertoire, Poinier says, "It's been so long that I've forgotten. I used to sing 'Parlez-Moi D'Amour' (Speak to Me of Love). You'd think I could remember, but I've just had my 94th birthday; I'm amazed I can remember as much as I can."

She pauses.

"I don't know. I can't even remember, but whatever they were, Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, whatever they were, they had tunes to them. They weren't these dreadful, raucous things that have one word that they can only sing because that's all they can remember."

Between the smoke and World War II and following her first husband to Washington, Poinier's singing career came to a sudden end.

Four years later, she stood with her family on the train station platform in Westerly, seeing her brother off for a second stint as a fighter pilot in the Pacific.

"We were all standing on the platform to say goodbye to him when we got the news that Hiroshima had been bombed and that the war was over," she says. "We were ecstatic."

And she was about to embark on a new path.

Divorcing her first husband, she moved back home to live with her mother, who, before she knew it, brought her into her landscaping business.

When a client worried about where she'd get the bushes for her property, "Mother, with a perfectly straight face, said, 'Lois can handle that,'" Poinier says. "And that's how I got into the landscaping business, and I was in it for about 40 years."

Gardening remains her passion, and she has a garden just outside her home at the StoneRidge retirement community in Mystic. But she also has involved herself in redoing the landscaping of the entire complex.

When her best friend and next-door neighbor Alma "Nicky" Trench was hit by a car and killed in February, "a lot of us wanted to do something in her memory, so we redid the garden in Avalon, which is the nursing home part of StoneRidge," she says. "It was planted so dreadfully that nobody really went out and sat in it ... so I suggested that we do it over in memory of Nicky Trench. So guess who got stuck with the job?"

Lois Poinier smiles.

"I was brought up as an Episcopalian. I'm rather fed up with them, as a matter of fact, and with most of these religions, because there's so much hypocrisy with so many of them," she says.

"God is right out here in my garden. You don't have to be a gardener to realize that there's some power greater than you that has created all of what's there, and it didn't happen just because it just happened. Something has done it.

"I don't know what it is, but I don't believe in hell. I think you have hell on earth. You don't have to worry about burning up anyplace else."

Lois Poinier, 94, of Mystic, sings show tunes on the stage of the Garde Arts Center.
Lois Poinier, 94, of Mystic, sings show tunes on the stage of the Garde Arts Center. Abigail Pheiffer The Day Buy Photo

SPECIAL REPORT

Between 2000 and 2005, the population of those 85 and older grew by 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing demographics. Kenton Robinson interviewed and Abigail Pheiffer photographed some of these nonagenarians.

View the entire series at www.theday.com/90thenew70.

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