BELFAST, Maine — In the last few weeks, Margaret Cunningham has harvested the potatoes from her vegetable garden, painted her porch, driven herself to church, started a quilting class and put up quarts of tomatoes and pints of raspberry, blackberry and blueberry jams and jellies.
It may not sound extraordinary. But when you learn that Cunningham is 100 years old, suddenly the list takes on a deeper resonance.
“I like to keep busy,” she said while sitting in her favorite chair at her tidy, cozy Belfast home. “I’ve got to accomplish something. I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
Cunningham, it seems, has never just done nothing. She was born and raised in rural Waldo County, and remembers details from the 1920s and 1930s that might seem very remote to modern-day ears. When she was a girl, there was no electricity in Poors Mill, where she lived for several years, and she remembers trimming the wicks and washing the chimneys of the oil lamps. One exciting memory was the time when she was driving with her mother and father over Dixmont Mountain in an early Ford when the brakes let go. Her father, a calm man, simply steered the vehicle safely to the bottom of the hill, where it coasted to a stop. But her mother did not enjoy the wild ride.
“Mother screamed and screamed,” Cunningham said. “Every time we went over Dixmont Mountain after that, mother would get out and walk down the mountain. My father was easy-going. He’d just wait for her to get to the bottom.”
During the Great Depression, her family was fortunate, she said. Her parents always kept a garden, and her mother put food by in jars so they had enough to eat. They kept a milk cow and sheep to make wool for their clothes. But even though her father was a hard worker, he had a hard time back then finding a job. Money was short, as it was for many Americans, and buying shoes were a problem.
“I’d wear the soles out, and have to get up in the morning and hunt for a piece of paper or cardboard to put in them,” she said.
After she graduated from high school, she spent a year studying at Gorham Normal School in southern Maine to become a teacher. She was planning to go back for her second year, when she crossed paths with a local school superintendent while on a walk with her mother.
“He begged me to take the school in East Thorndike,” she said. “Money was hard, so I took the job.”
That was in 1938, when she was 20 years old. She soon found herself running the one-room schoolhouse by herself, teaching the children, hauling the water and stoking the fire. She had about 20 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, with some of the eighth-graders just about as old as she was “and bigger, too,” she said. The school was too far from where her parents lived in Swanville to commute, so she boarded with a local family, paying them $10 a week out of her $15 per week salary. The schoolhouse did feature one quirk that makes her smile 80 years later. It had just one room, but two doors: one for girls and one for boys.
“That was an interesting thing,” she said.
Cunningham didn’t stay in East Thorndike too long. Before the end of the school year, the superintendent found her a different job for her in Swanville, so she could stay at home. That’s about the time she met her husband, Devereux Cunningham.
“My brother brought him home for Sunday dinner, along with another fellow,” Margaret Cunningham said. “When I said I had to go wash the dishes, the other fellow said, ‘I’ll help.’ [Devereux] said, ‘No, you won’t. I’ll help.’”
They married in 1940, and had five children, including one who died as a toddler. During World War II, Devereux, who had worked as a driver for lumber yards and gravel pits, loaded ammunition in Searsport for the war effort and also hauled box boards in Patten that would be used to make coffins, “to bring the bodies home,” Cunningham said quietly.
She continued working as a teacher, and for the next 30 years, she worked around the county, including at schools in Northport and at the Governor Anderson School in Belfast. For a long time, she taught first-graders, so many Waldo County residents were taught to read by Cunningham. One of those former students spotted her recently while she was out and about in Belfast and came to speak with her. It took a bit for Cunningham to recognize her old student. The student had looked quite a bit different at age 6, she pointed out.
After she and Devereux retired, they spent time in Florida and traveled a lot around the country, visiting far-flung friends and family members. They had a good time, she said.
“I was 58, pretty young to retire, but I’m glad because we did a lot,” she said.
Devereux died in 2006, after 66 years of marriage. Margaret Cunningham never stopped keeping busy, continuing to travel and plant her garden and make quilts for her four living children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. This spring, she planted potatoes, tomatoes, beets, swiss chard and cucumbers in the garden plot in her backyard.
“I like to see things grow,” she said.
Over the decades, she has noticed changes she doesn’t care for. Kids used to spend more of their time playing outside, she said, and some of the modern time-saving devices and inventions seem to have made people a little complacent and even a bit less capable than before.
“Sometimes I think life has been made too easy for people,” Cunningham said. “They can’t appreciate what they have. I saw a woman at the grocery store buy a bag of popcorn. I thought, ‘Heavenly day. You can make your own popcorn so much cheaper and it will be hot and so much tastier.’”
Still, the world’s the world, and she’s glad she’s still able to live independently and be so much a part of it.
“I get up in the morning and can’t believe I’m 100,” Cunningham said. “I’ve just got to be here, and that’s it. I’ve got plenty of things to do before the snow falls.”
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