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I never expected to live so long

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Winnie Oatley with her knitting (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Winnie Oatley’s mother lived to be 96; her brothers are both in their nineties. Still, she was a bit disbelieving when she celebrated her 99th birthday in February.

“I don’t know why, I just never expected to live so long,” said Mrs Oatley. “Life is full of surprises.”

She is still quite spry and walks up and down her Cut Road, St George’s neighbourhood each day with only a cane.

“People can’t believe that I’m still walking,” she said. “I am a little bit less steady on my feet than I used to be, but I only use the cane when I go out. I don’t really need it around the house.”

Until last year she regularly walked into the Olde Towne to catch the bus, or up the road to visit her family at the Sylvia Richardson Care Facility.

“My family don’t want me to do that any more, so I wait until they come and get me,” she said.

She was born in Sandys but her family moved to St George’s when she was only a year old.

“I had three younger brothers,” she said. “Leonard and Arthur are still living. They are 96 and 94. We all got on very well. We were a poor family by Bermuda standards so in the summer we did simple things. We played cricket in the backyard or went fishing.”

She still loves cricket and sports generally.

Her father Leonard Leighton, came to Bermuda from England with the British Navy. He met her mother, Pearl, here.

“My father was a petty officer and Marconi-trained operator,” said Mrs Oatley. “He had several jobs. When the railway was being built he worked out at Martello Tower at Ferry Reach.

“That was where the big camp was for the workers. He did all the time sheets for the men’s jobs. He had to work out all the men’s wages and there were no adding machines.”

Mr Leighton died suddenly, aged 37. She was 14 at the time.

“My father was just about to catch the train to come home when he collapsed and died,” said Mrs Oatley. “It was a big shock for us.”

It left her mother with four children to support on her own.

“She had to go to work,” said Mrs Oatley. “She cleaned houses, and took in laundry. We had a little help from my grandparents. She had a hard time. She was deaf. To me my mother was a hero, because she really worked hard.”

Mrs Oatley loved her time at St George’s Grammar School, particularly maths classes. At 15, however, she had to leave to work in a grocery store.

“I was offered a job,” she said. “I had to do something to help support my family. I managed to finish my Cambridge junior examinations, by studying in the evening after work.

I did all my work by a kerosene lamp made by my grandfather, William Whitehead. I still have it.”

In the evening she also helped her mother with the laundry.

“Some of the laundry she took in from the bases and some from an inn in St George’s; their tablecloths had to be starched. There was no spray starch in those days. I used to do the serviettes. They had to be ‘just so’.”

Her mother starched while she ironed. “I think that’s why to this day I don’t like ironing,” she said.

At 19 she became pregnant. At the time, having a baby out of wedlock was a social taboo. Her employers would not let her come back to work after her daughter, Joan, was born.

“A friend got me a job at Thomas Miles & Co [the predecessor to today’s Miles] in Hamilton,” she said. “I was with them for 20 years. Those people took me on in faith, so they’re people I owe a lot to.

“I worked in the accounting department and made many friends. Then in 1957, I went to work as a clerk in the mortgage department at the Bank of Butterfield.

“I was OK with the calculations but the typing was challenging. I was used to bookkeeping machines. The keys were arranged a bit differently from a typewriter, and I used to hunt and peck.

“But the staff at the bank were patient and I did get it eventually. My job was to type out notices to clients when their mortgage payments were due.

“Eventually, I was trained to interview people for a mortgage application. I ended by being a mortgage officer.”

She officially retired in March 1978 at age 60, but continued on a part-time basis.

“The bank took over another bank, and they had some different kinds of mortgages they wanted set up,” she said. “I had had a little training in them. I worked part-time with them until I was 70.”

After retirement, she volunteered at the Globe Hotel in St George’s for a few years. It gave her more time to spend with her husband, Sidney Oatley.

They married on September 6, 1960 when she was 42.

“I’d known him since I was a child,” she said. “He used to come around the house to play cricket. We had a good 34 years together. Sidney was a very kind man. He passed away in 1994.”

She spends much of her time reading and knitting and regularly worships at St Peter’s Church.

Her family surprised her with a party for her birthday this year.

“My grandson invited me to his house for afternoon tea,” she said. “I was so surprised when the whole family turned up. It made me so happy to see them all together.”

For her 100th she would like to do something quiet.

“I’m not one for fusses,” she said. “I think I’d like my whole family to come with me to church.

“I just try to take every day as it comes. I try not to think about how much time I have left. I take blood pressure pills, but I’m in good health. There have been hard times, sad times and happy times, but I am just glad to be alive.”

She has three stepchildren, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Lifestyle profiles senior citizens in the community every Tuesday. To suggest an outstanding senior contact Jessie Moniz Hardy: 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com. Have on hand the senior’s full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

Winnie Oatley going for a stroll in her St George’s neighbourhood (Photograph supplied)
Winnie Oatley (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Winnie Oatley with the kerosene lamp made by her grandfather (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Winnie Oatley, sixth from right, with her family on her 99th birthday (Photograph supplied)
Winnie Oatley (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Glad to be alive: Winnie Oatley, main, has loving memories of her late husband, Sidney, below left, and holds a kerosene lamp made by her grandfather, below right