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Stonington - When the Battle of Stonington bicentennial parade steps off today, grand marshal Anna North Coit will almost certainly be the only person there who also was at the borough's 100th anniversary parade a century ago.
"When she viewed the parade in 1914, she was 6 years old, so it seems appropriate to have a survivor of that parade as our grand marshal," said Harry R. "Rob" Palmer III, president of the Stonington Historical Society, who recommended the 106-year-old Coit for the honor.
Coit's knowledge of history, and local history in particular, was also good reason to name her grand marshal, said Palmer, who added it was just a few years back when Coit told him she remembered the 1914 celebration when Palmer's late grandmother, Rita Babcock Palmer, had the honor of leading the centennial parade.
Since last fall, Coit has been residing at Apple Rehab in Mystic. She is still a prolific writer and these days focuses mostly on poems, limericks and short essays, while still compiling "North Stonington Notes" for the North Stonington Historical Society's monthly newsletter, as she has for more than 30 years.
"I'm afflicted with insomnia so I make up poems in the night and write them during the day," Coit explained.
After a fall late last year followed by surgeries, she's confined to her bed or a wheelchair. But Coit's mind is sharp, and she's able to reconstruct the ideas that percolate in her head in the middle of the night and write them up herself or dictate them to a friend later.
"She's an extraordinary woman not only because of her age, but because she's widely read, highly literate, gentle and strong," said Kristen Comstock, who has typed up many of Coit's poems and essays and organized them in a loose-leaf notebook.
Coit is not sure what will happen to the collection she's penned since January but would like to see it published, like another collection of poems about her visits to Islesboro, Maine, that friends published for her. All proceeds from that book, "The Islesboro Poems," available at Bank Square Books and the North Stonington Historical Society, go directly to the society.
A Vassar graduate, a Quaker, a former contributing editor at Time magazine, former Pine Point schoolteacher, devoted naturalist, and longtime and active participant in the community, Coit has always enjoyed writing.
She said she never thought of herself as a poet until a friend who was going through some of her personal papers unearthed poems that Coit wrote 75 years ago.
"I always felt very humbly about my poetry," she said. "When I started writing poems I was all alone, I didn't have a critic to help me, and I thought everything had to be rhymed. And then I found out that wasn't so at all. The idea is to have an idea, and something that makes it extra clear. And they can be very short."
Some of Coit's poems are a single paragraph while others are two pages long. And her topics are all over the place.
"Her writing is of wide enough range, that there is something there for everybody," said Comstock, who is also a writer. "If someone was to leaf through, they would find something. She has insight and humor and 106 years of experience. ... She describes some things that go back to her youth, the natural world; from funny to touching to observational work to prose."
She's written about siblings - Coit was the oldest of five children - and weather and crops and insects and insomnia and history.
One of her favorite is about neatness, and it's just five short lines.
"Though we admit that
good repair is a virtue,
we look carefully at worn,
and realize how boring neatness is."
Writing hides the pain
As often as she can, Coit writes on yellow legal pads - "I buy them six at a time," she said - and added that "a small stroke" has made writing difficult.
Right after the stroke, she wasn't able to hold a pen at all, but she said exercises have helped to strengthen her grip and now she writes whenever she's able, until her hand gives out.
"Some days I can write for a while, and then, that's it, I'm cut short," she said of her hand failing her.
But writing, she said, fills her time and helps her through the physical discomfort.
"In my old age, one thing I have to cope with is pain," she said, explaining that ibuprofen helps but doesn't solve the problem.
She also enjoys reading and has a thick book on mythology on her bedside table as well as stacks of other books, many of them poetry, around her room.
Asked about her eyesight, Coit answers, "Well, I wouldn't brag about it."
She gets so many visitors, two old beach chairs are stacked against the wall of her room to provide extra seating when there's a crowd.
"Heavens, no," said Coit, when asked if she likes to watch television.
On the topic of her own longevity, Coit attributes keeping her mind sharp - "You just keep honing your memories," she said - and a simple diet - "I don't eat any really fancy food and I'm very low on bread and sweets. I still think that's a good idea," she said.
Her mind is indeed sharp, and she rattles off the unusual spelling of a friend's name.
"I think I really have a prodigious memory," she said. "I don't understand it."
Secret to friendship
She misses the North Stonington home on Denison Hill Road that she lived in for more than 60 years, and her independence.
"What I don't like is that I can't move about on my own," she said when asked what it's like to be 106.
And she admits she frets about things she shouldn't worry about, making them bigger than they really are, adding, with a smile: "The elephant has labored and brought forth a mouse."
There's a steady stream of visitors to Coit's room at Apple Rehab, and the centenarian explained the secret to her many friendships.
"In my old age I've learned that though I talk all the time, I've learned to keep my mouth shut." In other words, she does her best to never say something that will offend another.
Mac and Pat Turner have been friends of Coit for 30-plus years and these days borrow a van to transport her back to North Stonington for Historical Society gatherings.
"She has an uncanny ability to make everyone feel that they are her favorite, and she still pushes all of us to do our best," Mac Turner said.
Pat Turner sees Coit's penchant for planning as one reason for her longevity.
"It amazes me that she always has plans, and I think that's the secret to a long life," she said. "She wants to save seeds from the Gerbera daisies now so she can plant them next year. That's the key, to plan ahead."
Comstock, a friend and former neighbor, said she believes Coit's writing is therapeutic.
"She's using her writing to keep her mind clear," she said.
Coit agrees, saying writing keeps her sharp and occupied.
"It seems ridiculous to make that many poems, but my head is just full of it," she said of her ever-expanding loose-leaf binder.
"You just wait," said Coit, when asked another time about living such a long life.
Oh, and she mentions that her grandmother's sister, Mrs. Betsy Slocum, lived to be 107.