Writers Block: Chatham's Centenarian Remembers

I had a visit last week from my favorite centenarian.

Juliet Bernstein, who turns 104 next month, dropped by The Chronicle office to give me a copy of a new book, “We The Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage.” The book features profiles of women who are all 97 years of age or older; women, in other words, born before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.

The book is an outgrowth of a website launched last year called “I Waited 96 Years.” It had its origins in a photo posted by Sarah Bunin Benor of her 98-year-old grandmother posting an absentee ballot for the presidential election, in which she voted for Hillary Clinton.

The post went viral, and Benor joined forces with Tom Fields Meyer, after he suggested there must be thousands of women born before the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment who had waited all their lives to vote for a female presidential candidate. The website grew to include profiles of 186 women ages 96 to 105, and drew widespread media attention from as far away as Australia and Japan.

The narratives of many of the women showed great resilience, they write in the introduction. Living through the Depression, World War II, Korea, the McCarthy era, Vietnam and the Cold War will do that to a person. Despite the results of last fall's election, many remained hopeful. The trait comes across in the response to a followup questionnaire Benor and Meyer sent to the women who had been profiled on the website. The questionnaire not only asked them for details about their lives, but also for observations about how they had seen the country recover from past challenges, and advice about how it could heal at this moment. Fifty-five women responded, and their comments are collected in the book.

Juliet Bernstein was one of those who responded. She wrote about personal setbacks – her father committing suicide when she was 14, her husband being suspended from his teaching during during the height of the McCarthy era, and then dying suddenly at age 80 – and how she overcame them with “strength, resilience and courage,” traits she said she received from her mother, who came to this country from Russia at the age of 12 and worked in a factory to bring others in her family here. She also wrote about being told after receiving her graduate degree and signing a contract for a teaching job that she would be fired if she got married. This is something we often read about or see in period films from centuries past, but Juliet brings into relief the fact that within the lifetimes of those still with us, this sort of practice was not uncommon for women to encounter.

Challenging times brought her closer to her husband and family, Juliet wrote, and she recalled the Roosevelt and Kennedy-Johnson years as good times, when it seemed as if government really did care for all people, not just those with vested interests.

“This is a very sad time in the history of our country,” Juliet wrote about this moment in history. Yet despite the obvious disappointment of a life-long progressive, she adds, “We must not, however, give up hope.” While she is disappointed we haven't yet elected a woman as president, instead of despairing, she urges people to “do something. Join an organization that can make changes. Engage in nonviolent protest. Write letters to the editor of your newspaper.” That's something in which Juliet has great experience. One of my favorite bits from a roast of selectmen that my friend Otis Russell and I did many years ago was Otis' dropping a large tome on a table and declaring it “The Collected Letters to the Editor of Juliet Bernstein.” Her letters continue to appear in our pages to this day.

Finally, Juliet urges people to speak up, help others and “laugh a lot; it is good for the soul and for your heart and lungs.” Like the other women in “We The Resilient,” she remains optimistic even after failing to see her dream of a female president realized.

If you are at Chatham's Independence Day parade this July 4, watch for Juliet, the holder of Chatham's Boston Post Cane as the town's official oldest resident. No longer able to march as she had for so many years, she will be riding in the procession. Whether you agree with her politics or not, give her a wave in appreciation of all that she's seen and lived through in her long life.