Stefan Hard / Staff Photos
Gladys Divall, 103, pauses to reminisce while knitting mittens recently for needy children at home in North Barre Manor in Barre. She was born in Montgomery Center in 1909.
Open the door to Gladys Divall’s apartment on the seventh floor of the North Barre Manor elderly housing tower in Barre, and a diminutive woman greets you with a smile, stepping forward from her tidy kitchen.
Wait a minute — this can’t be right. The woman who greets you has sparkling eyes, stands straight as a rod and doesn’t look a day over 80. She’s supposed to be three years past a century in age, born before World War I.
“Gladys?” the visitor asks, incredulously.
“Hello there! Come in,” she says, backing away from the door with easy steps that reveal a woman not stooped or forced to lean on a cane due to the toll of as many decades as can be counted on both hands.
Inside Divall’s roomy apartment are more neat-as-a-pin rooms, if you don’t count balls of yarn here and there, a half-finished woollen mitten draped over the arm of a chair, a Woman’s World magazine left open, and a couch chock-full of teddy bears in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The bears are arranged in neat rows, even as they spill up and over the back of the couch — a reverse cascade of stuffed cuteness.
Divall gives the teddy bears to children. The balls of yarn are her raw material for the mittens she knits and also gives away to children who need them.
Divall sits down at her small table, grasps a mug and stirs her coffee, all without a trace of arthritis, and wonders aloud what in heavens would make someone interested in regarding her life.
Dispensing with any notion that she might not be 103, Divall notes with some pride that she was born in 1909 on Nov. 11 — a date later set aside as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I.
Divall remembers as a girl joining a parade in her native town of Montgomery Center on her ninth birthday and riding in a hay wagon down the route. The streets of tiny Montgomery Center were lined with celebrants for the Nov. 11, 1918, parade, and Divall, when she got home, excitedly told her mother that the whole town had come out to celebrate her birthday. Well, her mom had to explain, the parade was actually to celebrate the end of the Great War, but what a nice coincidence.
Divall grew up on a small farm. Her father always hunted deer, and her mother canned enough meat to last all winter, and so no matter what, the family of five (she had one brother and one sister) always had plenty to eat. She remembers Thanksgivings and other holidays always featuring a full house of her family plus several less-fortunate and often uninvited aunts, uncles and cousins who stopped in to partake in the reliable bounty.
None of those hungry relatives or any of the townsfolk let loose a big secret in Divall’s family: that she was adopted. Divall says everybody was afraid to cross her mother and wouldn’t dare reveal her pedigree. Divall didn’t learn the secret until she sought out her birth certificate while working in the town offices at age 21.
“I went home and told my mom, and she cried,” says Divall. “It wasn’t a big deal for me. I had always been the queen of the house.”
Divall says that now, living alone and being socially popular, she gets invited out to eat a lot, often within her own building, where about 130 other seniors live and where they often get together to play card games.
Divall doesn’t drive — never has. (She bought her late husband Victor’s first car but never drove it.) Friends pick her up to go out to eat, or she takes the bus to the Hannaford supermarket at the other end of town to get the small amount of food she cooks at home.
And that brings us to her first piece of advice about living long, happy and healthy.
At 103, you’re entitled to give out advice.
“I like good food. I’m not fussy,” she says, “but you’ve got to eat good food and eat small portions of food that is good for your system.”
Divall says she learned good habits from her mother.
“My mom was a doctor’s nurse. She was very clean and very particular about what we ate. And stay away from plastic. Don’t drink from plastic bottles, don’t eat from plastic containers. They use poison gas to make plastic, you know.”
Divall stirs a teaspoon of Sue Bee honey into her coffee. She claims the honey — a teaspoon per day — has prevented her from getting arthritis. She has one stiff thumb but says that’s from knitting all those thousands of pairs of mittens over the decades, about a pair per week since 1942, when she knit her first for a needy 5-year-old in her neighborhood. She also knits a few pairs of adult mittens to sell in her son Michael’s famous wooden toy store in Rutland.
All those mittens Divall knits enclose the hands of children in a tight, warm embrace. That leads us to her third big piece of advice, and it is to hug, and hug often.
“I’m being blessed by people every day. And so I kiss ’em on the forehead and give ’em a hug.”
Divall remembers with great pleasure and a giggle one day when her priest stopped by and she talked him into sharing a hug. She remembers that he was so big, and she so tiny, that she disappeared into his long arms.
“The best blessing is a big hug,” she says with finality. “I reminisce about times like that and I feel good inside. Those are the little things in life that keep you going.”MORE IN Central Vermont
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