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Mama Grace: I don’t know how I did it

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People are often surprised when they find out “Mama Grace” is 98. Her posture is ramrod straight; her face, largely unwrinkled.

“People are always asking me what's the secret to long life,” said the Friswell's Hill resident, whose actual name is Grace Woodley. “I'll tell you what the secret is: hard work!”

She and her late husband Ebenezer had 11 children to feed: Joseph, Marilyn, Richard, Norman, Esther, Anthony, Velma, Winston, Keith, Cromwell and Colin.

“When my children were small, I worked days as a chambermaid at the Bermudiana Hotel,” she said. “Nights I worked as a waitress at Fourways Inn. When I knocked off at 12am, I did the washing.”

She took pride in getting her pillowcases and blouses so white that people would knock on the door to ask for her secret.

“I don't know how I did it,” Mrs Woodley laughed. “In those days, we didn't have any washing machines or dryers. All the laundry had to be done on a washboard.”

And for a long time, all they had to keep their food cold was a small ice chest.

“I still remember the day we got a big ice box,” she said. “A lady was selling one. That ice box was something.

“You had to get a 50lb block, put it in a plastic bag and then stick it in the bottom of the box. There was a pan underneath to catch the melted water. When the block melted you went and got another one.”

She was born in Norwich, Connecticut, to a Bermudian, Alethia Simmons, and Emmanuel De Pina of Cape Verde.

“My mother met my father when she went to the United States to be a hairdresser,” Mrs Woodley said. “My father moved to the United States from Cape Verde shortly after the First World War, and got American status.”

Mrs Woodley was born a twin but her brother died at birth.

“My mother moved me and my two siblings to Bermuda when I was 8 years old,” she said. “My sister died shortly after we moved here, so I only had one brother.

“My father stayed in the United States, so my mother was on her own in Bermuda. In order to help her I left Central School at 13 to go out to work. I looked after children in the beginning, then moved into the hotel industry.”

She met her future husband in her early twenties.

“My girlfriends and I used to like to go out to different dances,” she said. “I met him that way, although I don't remember where.

“I know my favourite place to go dancing was Alexandrina Hall. That's on Court Street where United Dance Productions is now.”

The were married on April 29, 1944. Mr Woodley cared deeply about family and insisted that the children come home from school every day for lunch so that he could make them a cooked meal. He died suddenly on New Year's Day 1963.

“He worked in a cigar store during the day and was a dockworker at night,” Mrs Woodley said. “He was unloading a boat on the evening of New Year's Day in St George's when he took sick.

“He was down in the hole packing stuff to put on the jitney to bring up on the docks when he suffered a brain haemorrhage.”

She said it was hard when her husband died, but she coped.

“He was a wonderful husband and father,” she said. “I'd always said if something happened to him, I'd go back to live in Connecticut.

“So, after my husband died, I took the children to Connecticut, but they didn't like it. They said it was nice for a vacation, but they didn't want to live there.

“So we came back to Bermuda. My husband had built our house on Friswell's Hill, and we still had that to live in.

“We all had to pull together. The children always had their chores to do. My oldest daughter might iron the boys' boxer shorts; another child might do something else.

“I always made a point of ironing their shirts myself. One of my husband's last wishes was that my daughter, Velma, go away to school to become a nurse. I made sure that happened.”

Mrs Woodley retired in 1990 after 21 years working at Grotto Bay Hotel where she was a supervisor and housekeeper.

“I liked the hotels,” she said. “I liked meeting people.”

She also volunteered as treasurer at the Mid Atlantic Boat & Sports Club. “I went down there to see a friend,” Mrs Woodley said. “My husband had been involved with it. The friend knew I'd been a treasurer for two years with a different organisation.

“She asked if I would help them out. I said I would until they got someone else.

“I was there with them for 23 years. Then I decided I was getting out. I thought it was time to let the young people take over.”

Today she's known to almost everyone on Friswell's Hill. Not only did she raise her own children there, but a few that weren't hers that needed a home.

“If you get lost looking for me, just stop and ask someone,” she said. “Everyone knows me around here.”

Looking back on her life, she's proud of her big family, but wishes she hadn't had her children all quite so quickly. Some of them were only 11 months apart.

“I tell my granddaughters don't be like me,” she said. “I had them too close together. A nurse said to me once, ‘Mrs Woodley, you used to have a baby every Tuesday, now you're having them every Monday'.”

In 2012, she faced a breast cancer diagnosis with her own unique brand of feisty stoicism, ordering the doctor to “take it off!”.

“Afterward, my daughter said, Mama Grace, why you tell the doctor ‘take it off' like that? I said, if it is to save my life, take it off!”

After cancer surgery she refused painkillers and was allowed to leave the hospital after three days.

“The doctors said they'd never seen a woman like me before,” Mrs Woodley said.

As for her line, they keep coming. “I don't know how many grandchildren I have anymore,” she laughed. “I know I had 32 in the 1990s when my father died. I know I have a lot more than that now.”

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

Everybody knows Aunt Grace: Grace Woodley think she owes her longevity to hard work (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
Grace Woodley, centre, on her 75th birthday in 1994 with family gathered around (Photograph supplied)

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Published March 13, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated March 13, 2018 at 8:49 am)

Mama Grace: I don’t know how I did it

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