Lives of Our Times: A centenarian looks back at Baltic
Last July, Jeannette Tetreault turned 100.
It’s hard to imagine the world she was born into. She was a baby as waves of the 1918 flu pandemic were still taking lives. She was 8 when the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday; a teen through the Great Depression, just old enough to date when all the boys went off to war.
Baltic, where she was born in a house on High Street, was truly a tight-knit village. Almost everyone who worked at the Baltic Mill and other mills lived in the village, and almost everyone who lived in the village worked at the mills.
In fact, the town of Sprague, centered in Baltic, was established for the purposes of the mill, stitched together from a piece of Lisbon and a piece of Franklin.
It was a different village then. It had a pharmacy, a cobbler, a theater, a meat market, a soda shop, a lot of speakeasies, a hotel, a boardinghouse, a blacksmith, several marching bands, a trolley to Norwich and Willimantic.
Today, asked what life was like back then, the first thing Jeannette says is, “Everybody took care of everybody else. If you asked for help, people came right over. Other family’s kids were your own. If a mother was sick, other mothers would take care of her kids. If someone needed food, people gave them some.”
When the Depression caused the mill to run only part-time, people took turns at short shifts so that everybody had a little income.
Her grandparents, like two whole generations of Balticians, came from Quebec to work in the mills. French was a common language in the streets. Ask Jeannette a question in French, and she’ll shift into the hard-edged nasal Canadian that all the grown-ups used to speak.
Many of the French names from back then are still common in town: St. Germain, Papineau, Chartier, Charon, Charron, Cote, LaLiberte, Glaude, Gladue, Arpin, Stefon, Bastien, Bernier, Blais, Blanchette, Douville, Deschamps, Deslandes, Derosier, Desaulniers, Ducharme, Gauthier, Gaudreau, Genereux ...
She was an Adam (no “s”) and a troublemaker, a tomboy who didn’t think of herself as a girl. She was more of a boy, she says, than some of her boy cousins.
With all due sarcasm, two neighboring women, known as “the Old Maids,” called her Angel Face.
Little Angel Face got into a lot of trouble, even with the police. She got the Old Maids good one day when she had another kid poop on a sheet of newspaper which she rubbed all over the Old Maids’ gate. They didn’t know until too late, at which point they yelled at her in French.
It was the kind of prank that’s still good after 89 years.
Back then, even tomboys had to wear not just bloomers but brown stockings held up by tight garters that hurt the legs. She let hers get all lumpy and droopy. Did she care? No, not a bit.
She went to the Catholic school, which at the time was in two houses on what is today School Street. The schools were heated by nothing more than a potbelly stove.
In the winter, the kids wore their coats and boots all day. Their books were outdated cast-offs from the public school.
The school had a fire escape, which was useful for looking up Sister Francis’s dress when she was on the upper landing upstairs.
The town had one doctor who took care of serious illness and delivered babies. The rest of healthcare was in the hands of a nurse, Miss Punch, who was very good at what she did.
But when she retired due to illness, another nurse came in from out of town. She was known for nothing other than smelling bad and looking dirty. Her stockings were all wrinkled and hanging down.
Along came The War. Jeannette’s fiancé and most of the other boys in town shipped off to Europe and the Pacfic. Many came back “shell-shocked” and didn’t get the treatment they deserved. One became a terminal alcoholic.
Her fiancé cheated on her, and that was the end of that. She married a soldier from Danielson instead, though the marriage would last only 54 years until he died at 80.
Her contribution to the war effort, besides sewing socks and underwear for the troops, was a rubber corset that she simply could not tolerate. She threw it into the auto repair yard, and some boys caught it and threw the corset in the rubber collection bin. For all she knows, it became a Jeep tire at Guadalcanal.
There’s a lot more to a life of a hundred years, too much for this brief biographical glimpse.
Jeannette’s secret to longevity? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s reflected in a short book she wrote, the title of which clearly states what she doesn’t give a _____.
She doesn’t necessarily advise taking a glass of booze to bed every night, but that’s what she does to kill the pain of arthritis, which hurts her from the toes on up. She gets into bed before she drinks it so she doesn’t fall over.
Her advice to today’s whippersnappers? “Don’t be selfish. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Take care of the people around you. Being selfish doesn’t work for anything.”
Good advice. If everybody did that for a century, we’d all live longer. And better.
Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator and managing editor of New London Librarium. He can be reached at glenn@NLLibrarium.com.
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