By Lorraine Ryan
On September 21, Carmella Meehan celebrated becoming 101, a feat not for the faint of heart. She was born from Italian immigrants in Boston’s North End, the youngest of six children.
In many ways life back then was slower, simpler. In many ways, it was living at the edge of the precipice, especially for immigrants.
Living to be 100+ is an amazing thing. But living in 2023 is a distant world from 1922. Fuel for cars was sold in pharmacies but while there, you could buy some leeches to cure an infection. Only 8% of homes had telephones. Only 14% had bathtubs. More than 95% of all births took place at home. Alcohol was prohibited but could be made in the 14% of bathtubs.
Communication was by letter. Families gathered around the radio. And listened. Together.
Carmella’s grandmother Filippa emigrated from Pietraperzia, a small village in Sicily. Widowed, she traveled with her children for a new life and hope in America, enduring the three-week transatlantic passage in steerage. Carmella’s mother, Peppina, never recovered and suffered from agoraphobia all her life. Filippa arranged marriages for her daughters, then found a parcel of land to farm in Saugus, living there until her death at 106.
Memories of Carmella’s early life are vibrant and colorful. She recalls Paul Revere reenactments while sitting on her father’s shoulders. Continuous feast day celebrations could be watched from her Hanover Street apartment. Statues of patron saints adorned with dollars, so many friends and neighbors’ voices amidst the beat of an Italian band and the smell from vendors selling delicacies punctuated every event. She remembers Mayor Curley, Governor Tobin and John Kennedy when he was running for the Senate.
Living an immigrant life is never easy, but especially so in the early 1900s. Carmella’s father worked as a laborer and her mother was a seamstress, sewing at night while the family slept. When she was only seven, the Great Depression entered her life and threatened whatever progress had been made in her family’s American journey.
At 15 she graduated from the ninth grade and finished her schooling since more education wasn’t thought necessary for most girls. She went to work at a hosiery factory where she was a mill inspector, checking nylons for runs and imperfections. She made $12/week. Later, as the country geared up for war, she worked for the Wilson Leather Factory stitching leather military cases.
Carmella met John, the love of her life, at a Navy Shipyard dance during World War II. They married in 1942 and were married for 64 years. He died in 2007 and she misses him every day.
She has outlived her peers and many much younger than her. “It’s lonely at the top,” she said.
But her four children, eight grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and Rose, the first great-great-grandchild, will make sure life is never lonely.
The young girl who fearlessly ran around the North End, the young woman whose love of dancing led her to the love of her life, and the wife and mother who dedicated her life to family is still dancing in her heart.