“It’s just a number,” Ella Lombard of Harwich says about one’s age. “It’s what you do with it.”
Ella celebrated her 100th birthday on May 21. This remarkable woman lives at home with her pet pug and still drives herself to the grocery store and bank. She took up painting in her 70s when her niece tutored her; today, a quilt that she is sewing is spread over the dining room table. To date, she has completed 46 quilts, most of which she has given to close family and friends.
“Without a real formal education — what she’s accomplished later in life — she’s excelled at it,” says her eldest son Charles, 78, who is visiting his mother this afternoon.
“I didn’t have it, so I saw to it that they went to school,” Ella says, referring to Charles and his siblings John and Laurie, all graduates of Harwich High School. Charles retired from the Stop & Shop after 41 years. John also retired from a career at the store, and Laurie is still employed there.
Now, who better to ask the secret of a long life than a centenarian?
“Work,” Ella says without hesitation. “I would still be working if these guys would let me.” She laughs and looks at Charles. They’re sitting in her living room where an air conditioner is keeping the room cool on a hot summer day.
“It’s 110 percent or nothing,” Charles says. “You’ve got to learn to slow down a little bit.”
“I don’t know how,” Ella responds.
She cooks, she bakes pies. She is deeply religious and attends church in Dennis Port.
The cheerful home is filled with family photographs. When she ran out of wall space, she displayed photos on the wall going up the stairs to the second floor. She has five grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild who is a sixth grader.
Warren G. Harding was in the White House and the roads of Harwich were not yet paved when Ella was born at home. Ella was the 19th of 21 children born to John and Amelia Costa Rose, natives of Cape Verde. Of those children, 14 lived to adulthood. Ella is the sole member of the large family now living.
Ella grew up on Kelley Street — today known as Main Street — in North Harwich. In an interview she gave to her niece Virginia Pena for the Harwich Cape Verdean Oral History Project, she said, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it.” She called her mother “a beautiful person” and added, “whatever she did, she did well.” Today Ella recalls that when a woman in the Cape Verdean community went into labor, her mother and aunt would cook and clean for the woman’s family.
Ella’s mother died when Ella was only 17 or 18, in 1939; her father lived for another 24 years, to the age of 97.
Ella had to leave school after the sixth grade and go to work. For many years she worked as a “domestic” in various homes in Harwich and Chatham, where her employers treated her like family. She had met her husband, Charles, in school, and after they married, they raised their own three children in their hometown. Charles owned Cement Block Company, a firm he took over from his father. While everything was first done by hand, by the time Charles got out of the service, he had automated the company. Ella finally retired when her husband became ill.
The extended family has now migrated from Cape Cod to Florida, Texas and California. The family even includes celebrities such as football quarterback Justin Fields, who was just drafted by the Chicago Bears. Generally, on the second Saturday in July, the clan hosts a family gathering that draws up to 400 relatives at the Brewster VFW. But for two years now, they have had to skip the gathering due to the coronavirus pandemic. They hope to resume it next summer.
“Mrs. Lombard is a treasure to our community,” says Angelina Raneo Chilaka, a retired Harwich High School teacher active in the Cape Verdean community. “There was never a day that she did not have a smile on her face or a welcoming gesture to make everyone feel comfortable. She is definitely the matriarch in the Cape Verdean community and a shining star in the Town of Harwich.”
The town itself commemorated Ella’s 100th birthday with a certificate of recognition.
Last year, when Lombard turned 99 just a few months into the pandemic, the family arranged for a gala “drive-by” celebration. Charles produces a hardcover photograph album that pictures people in the 155 cars that passed by Ella’s home. The decorated cars assembled at Sand Pond Beach, then drove down Great Western Road to Depot Street to Main Street. They paraded by blowing their horns and waving out their windows at Ella, who sat protected from the day’s mist under a blue canopy her family set up at the bottom of her driveway. Those in the cars included family, church friends and even classmates of Ella’s children.
“When you live a good life and treat people as they want to be treated…payback is not always bad,” Charles says. To his mother he says, “You’ve touched a lot of people.”