Smiling over a Century

Maria Lopes
Ms. Lopes relaxes and awaits her birthday cake. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Eleni Collins - November 9, 2006

Maria Lopes sat reclined in a chair and sang "happy birthday" quietly to herself while her children sat by her side. Surrounded with orange and pink flowers, with rosy cheeks and glittering eyes, she greeted her friends who came to celebrate her special day.

More than 105 years ago, Ms. Lopes was born in Portugal. And 105 years later, this Halloween she celebrated her birthday at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center with her son Gilbert Paulette, daughter Irene Dugan, and friends.

"Do you feel old, mother?" asked Irene, as guests made their way to the second floor parlor of Windemere for the party. "No, I don't feel old," replied Maria, glancing from her daughter to her friends surrounding her.

Ms. Lopes sits with Gilbert and Irene
Flanked by her children, Ms. Lopes sits with Gilbert and Irene.

Ms. Lopes has been living in the United States since she was nine years old, Irene explained. She came to Ellis Island with her mother on a schooner named the Millicent. The two joined Maria's brothers and began their lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. where she raised three children. Her next move was to New Bedford, where she remained until she joined her daughter here on the Vineyard five years ago when she became ill.

Maria's daughter Irene, who is 80 years old, has three children and currently lives in Vineyard Haven. Having grown up in Brooklyn, she married an Island man, Clifford Dugan, in the early 1950s.

Gilbert John Paulette, 82 years old, was Maria's other child who was at the birthday celebration. Now living in San Diego, Calif., Mr. Paulette has eight children, and served in the Navy for 30 years. Beginning as a radioman for four years on sea duty, he then became an I.B.M. (International Business Machines) operating programmer for 26 years. While on sea duty, Mr. Paulette recalls, he traveled to every island in the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to Iwo Jima.

Gilbert and Irene
The children prepare to cut the cake at Windemere.

Enjoying the birthday party on Tuesday and sitting by their mother's side, the family members posed for pictures and sat down to enjoy cake and punch with Maria's friends in Windemere. During the party, Irene and Gilbert crunched numbers to figure out how many grandchildren Maria had. "Sixteen grandchildren," Irene finally announced. Gilbert thought some more and counted nine great-grandchildren, and several great-great-grandchildren.

The genes in this family are impressive. Neither Irene nor Gilbert look older than 65, and Maria's skin was glowing as if she just had a facial. "He plays racquetball, and he travels all over the country," Irene commented about her brother's youthful vibe. "He's non-stop." Irene herself has recently come back from a trip to Italy.

Despite their traveling, both Irene and Gilbert made sure they were here for their mother's birthday celebration. "She knows she's the center of attention," said Irene, while looking at her mother, who was smiling for the camera. "She's all woman."