Rose Treat: a century of life lessons
The trick to living to 100 may be just living life with passion and curiosity.
"When I wake in the morning, my first thought is: 'Gee, I'm still here,' and then I say, 'OK, what's my plan for today,'" Rose Treat says, talking about her century of life from her home at Major's Cove in Oak Bluffs.
Over the past century, Ms. Treat - who has a weekly Scrabble group because, she says, "It keeps the wits sharp" - has seen a lot, from the development of the automobile and the airplane to a man on the moon.
Social scientists estimate that more than 70 percent of what the world knows and has invented has occurred in the past 100 years.
Ms. Treat says, "I would say the television is the most important invention and women's suffrage the greatest social change. To think that Hillary Clinton was a presidential candidate is wonderful. The role of women in all careers has advanced. I remember, as a young girl, being taken to a suffragette march in New York at which men stood on the sidewalk literally spitting and yelling at the marchers."
Photo by M.C. Wallo
Late day sunlight slants across her animated face, dancing in bright eyes that reflect the joy of a well-lived life, including marriage to a noted author and close friendships with literary lions and artistic giants such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack. And then there is her artistic passion for seaweed, a simple form of sea life that she used to transform herself into a noted artist and nationally recognized plant life authority.
Ms. Treat's life began on December 12, 1908, in Czechoslovakia. She was 14 months old when her family moved to New York's lower East Side.
"My mother was pregnant at the time," she recalls. "The whole family came, two girls, one boy and my parents. I don't remember home in Czechoslovakia or even where in the country it was except that it was called Marisch Ostro and was a good-sized town. My father was a wigmaker in Czechoslovakia - for the theater and for people who needed wigs - and he continued that craft in the United States.
"I learned my ABC's on a slate, sharing a seat with another student, at P.S. 104 on East Sixth Street."
Then the family left the city for Yorktown Heights. "My brother, Norbert (Ehrenfreund, 87, who has authored two books), had what they called a 'rheumatic heart,' and the recommended treatment was country air and country water. That was the recommended treatment for everything in those days, from heart conditions to a stubbed toe," Ms. Treat says, laughing.
The family settled in then-rural Putnam County, which featured a one-room schoolhouse that educated 12 students, including Rose Ehrenfreund.
Ms. Treat describes her high school teacher as "not very good," then says, "But she collected about half the children every day on the one and one half mile walk to the schoolhouse, and along the way she would point out plants and how things grew, what their seasons were. She made us aware of how things grow. I liked that."
After graduating, Ms. Treat returned to New York City, and began a career in nursing in the late 1920s. In 1942, she met her husband of 55 years, Lawrence Treat, a mystery writer who was accorded three Edgar Allan Poe awards. Mr. Treat died in 1998.
"I loved him very much, and he loved me," she says. "We had our disagreements, but we learned not to jab at our marriage, not to injure it. The marriage is the most important thing, not our personal feelings at the moment. I remember one argument we had, and I just shouted 'Oh, shut up.' He stopped and said quietly, 'Rose, we don't speak to each other that way'," she says. "He was right. My anger dissipated and I never forgot that moment. Yes, marriages are organic, like plants. You can't jab at them and injure them. We never let disagreements fester," she said.
During their marriage, Ms. Treat became sick and was hospitalized four times. "I recovered but went into a deep depression. I wanted to get away, have a fresh start that might relieve my depression," she says. "I was thinking the south of France, but a friend of Lawrence's suggested Martha's Vineyard so we came here summers from 1959 until 1972, when we bought our first house in West Tisbury. But initially, we had a camp at Lobsterville Beach, no plumbing or water," she recalled.
An epiphany occurred on her first walk on Lobsterville Beach. "I noticed the seaweed. It just seemed to take me over. I felt better instantly and I began collecting it."
Over time, Ms. Treat studied the various and intricate forms of seaweed, its seasons and its functions. She has a library of nearly two dozen books and pamphlets on the subject. She also cataloged the forms and wound up drawing the attention of Island naturalist Allan Keith. "Allan said, 'Rosie, what you're doing is important. No one's doing that.' He convinced me to donate work to the Polly Hill Arboretum. Now there are 357 pieces at the arboretum," she says. "They may be valuable, for example, to environmental researchers in the future to see what sea life was like before all this climate change."
Ms. Treat uses the sea life form as her artist medium, matting and framing drawings with intricate, delicate patterns, some of which eerily resemble Hubbell photos of our galaxy.
She seems a bit bemused that her simple act of self-healing has become so important. "But it's satisfying to know that your life's work has had some benefit," she said. "I think it's important that you leave the world a little better than you entered it."
Her views on living long and well are simple: "Nourish the body and mind well. Never stop learning. Learning does not stop when you finish school. Too many people are not curious; they seem to lack it," she says, adding, "I am still curious. I never think about dying, though I know my life is coming to an end."
She nurtures herself with her work, her art and close family relationships, including her nephew, Island resident Steve Lohman, a well-known sculptor. She will celebrate her birthday with 22 relatives, including her brother Mr. Ehrenfreund and 80-year-old sister Lora Lohman. Her great-grandfather lived to be 104.
"When I go to bed at night, I concentrate on going to sleep. Do you remember the line from Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner?'" she asks, then from memory recites, "Oh, sleep, it is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole." Ms. Treat rises from her chair and moves to where the late afternoon sun can embrace and nourish her.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.