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BELFAST, Maine — Margaret Cunningham of Belfast was surprised Tuesday morning by a parade of a dozen or so people who sang to her, gave her cards and flowers and smiled big underneath their face masks.
Despite the pandemic, which bans large gatherings, they had to do something to mark the occasion — even if it was from a “social distance.”
After all, it’s not every day that a person turns 102.
“I didn’t expect this,” the birthday girl said, from her perch on a deck chair placed in her driveway.
Cunningham, who was born the year the 1918 influenza pandemic ravaged the world, looked tickled that a dozen or so of her friends came to wish her well. They had gathered at the First Church in Belfast and driven in a convoy to her nearby home. Then they adjusted their masks and belted out “Happy Birthday,” followed by a couple of hymns.
The Rev. Kate Winters of the First Church bore flowers, which she placed on the porch. Cunningham is a stalwart member of the church, which has not met in-person in weeks, and Winters has missed seeing her and the rest of the congregation.
“I think this is church in action,” she said of the birthday gathering. “Recognizing the importance of our elders, and celebrating them. And Margaret’s such a special person for us.”
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Patty Sheehan, another attendee, was wearing a floral face mask that she had made from fabric that Cunningham had given her. In total, she had made 50 face masks from the fabric, she said, one of which was wrapped up to be a birthday gift.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said of the gathering. “We all just wanted to do something for her. We love her.”
After the singing, Cunningham told everyone that she missed going to church.
“I get awful tired of my own company,” she said.
The pandemic has proved to be challenging in another way, too, one that is all too familiar to legions of thwarted home bakers.
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“I was going to make bread, and there’s no flour,” she said.
Two years ago, when she was 100, Cunningham told a BDN reporter about her life. She remembers growing up without electricity and the privations of the Great Depression, which included having to place cardboard or paper in the soles of her worn-out shoes every morning. After high school, she started studying at Gorham Normal School in Southern Maine to become a teacher. When she was getting ready to go back for a second year, a local school superintendent begged her to take a job teaching at the one room schoolhouse in East Thorndike.
Money was tight, so she took it. Cunningham taught 20 students from kindergarten through eighth grade — some as old as she was and bigger, too — by herself. She hauled water, stoked the fire and boarded with a local family. The next year she taught in Swanville, so she could live with her parents, and met her future husband, Devereux Cunningham. They married in 1940 and had five children, including one who died as a toddler.
During World War II, her husband supported the war effort by loading ammunition in Searsport and also hauled box boards in Patten that would be used to make coffins for the soldiers who died overseas.
Cunningham worked as a teacher in Waldo County for the next 30 years, then retired and traveled with her husband, who died in 2006 after 66 years of marriage.
Even as a centenarian, she keeps busy, working in the garden, making jams and jellies and making quilts for family.
And despite the changeable early spring weather and the hardships of the pandemic, she will remember her 102nd birthday as being a happy one.
“I have had a good day so far,” she said.
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