August 20, 2021

Windham's oldest citizen shares her personal perspectives from past 103 years

Hazel Gilman of Windham turned 103 years old in
July. She shares a few memories and perspectives
on a life well lived, which included a humble wit
and a supportive family. SUBMITTED PHOTO
By Lorraine Glowczak

Born Hazel Plummer on July 20, 1918, Hazel Gilman has lived her entire life in Windham. One hundred and one of those years have been spent in the home where she currently resides, which in the beginning did not have indoor plumbing.

“When I was 2 years old, my Mom and Dad moved in with my grandparents to help take care of them,” Gilman said. “My grandfather was deaf and blind, so my mom and dad wanted to be there and help them out in any way they could.”

And thus, her outlook regarding the importance of family was born. This experience shaped the decisions she would make the rest of her life, including living humbly with confidence - inspiring a deep sense of happiness, gratitude, and humor - all of which was balanced within life’s reality as it was and is laid out before her.

She was presented the Boston Post Cane Award from the Town of Windham when she was 100.

When asked how she felt about receiving this honor, Gilman said with a smile, “It’s nothing I’ve done to deserve it. I just happen to be the oldest person alive in Windham.”

Gilman graduated from Windham High School in 1935 and married Kenneth Gilman in 1941. Together they lived a contented life until his passing 23 years ago. Although they did not have children, the Gilmans raised three of her younger brothers while living in her childhood home.

“My mother died at the age of 50, leaving my father a widower - so Ken and I stepped in to help raise my younger brother.”

Her father remarried and together, he and his new wife welcomed two more sons into their lives. However, tragedy struck a second time when Gilman’s stepmother died from cancer in her 50s. Once again Gilman and her husband stepped in to raise the two boys.

Having been through five major wars and two pandemics, Gilman has witnessed and experienced many changes in a century’s time.

"I put laundry in the washing machine the other day and it dawned on me that I can have my clothes washed and dried in a couple of hours,” Gilman said. “It would have taken my mom two days to do the same amount of laundry…by the time she boiled the water, soaked the clothes, hung them out to dry and then ironed them.”

As for the current electronics that are readily available today, she admits frustration.

“There are so many buttons. It’s all very confusing to me. I liked it when there was just an on and off button.”

She said that although the many modern conveniences are helpful overall, it hasn’t created the happiness so many long for.

“I think we were much better off when we had to work together to get things done. It created a sense of community among families and neighbors that doesn’t seem to happen today. It felt as if we were all in the same boat and we simply had fun, despite the challenges and hard work it took to live.”

But as the saying goes - for every deep truth that exists, the exact opposite is also true. Gilman points to this duality.

“Just the other day, I got to see and visit my nephew who lives in Texas – all on the computer screen,” she said referring to the now well-known Zoom online platform. “I’m amazed and so happy that these modern conveniences do exist despite the many drawbacks.”

In terms of the recent pandemic, Gilman had this to say:

“During COVID, people were always talking about how they missed going out to eat and how difficult it was to stay at home,” she said. “Staying at home was normal for us. We never went out to eat and there would be times we wouldn’t see others for weeks at a time. We just lived. We were happy. There was no striving to become the best – we simply lived the life we were given. We created our own amusement and we helped each other without giving it any thought. We did what we needed to do in our current circumstances, and we made it happen.”

Self-inspired amusement was the norm during Gilman’s youth and the early years of her marriage where community and neighborhood gatherings would often happen spontaneously.

“I remember one of our neighbors was a piano teacher,” Gilman said. “In the evenings, he would practice and when he started playing - music came through the windows and the whole neighborhood would hear it, gather around, sitting on his lawn, listening, and singing to the songs we knew. We’d experience a concert right then and there.”

In terms of her memory, most would say she is as quick as a whip. Although she might humbly agree this is true, she would add one caveat.

“I can tell you what happened 50 years ago, but I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday,” she said with a quiet giggle.

When asked what she thought may have contributed to her longevity, she thought for a moment and then responded, “I don’t know. It just happened.”

But love and dedication for family was and is her most important dedication and focus. Gilman said many times that she is very fortunate to have such a large and loving family who looks in on her and she only wished this was possible for all people.

“For those who do not have families, I would take them in – I’d be there for them, that is how important family is to be living a happy and healthy life.”

Although Gilman may not know exactly what has contributed to her long life, it is evident that dedication to family sprinkled with humor may have something to do with it.

“If anyone ever asks you if you want to live past 100, simply say, ‘No thank you’,” she said. “I love how much my family loves me and is there for me, but I haven’t been in the garden or active on any level since I was 95 years old. I’m not so sure living past 100 is a goal anyone should have.”

When she is not reading or watching the daily news or visiting with her family who checks in on her daily, you will find her quietly reading her bible or watching a Sunday morning religious service.

“We have walked in and have found her reading the bible,” Peter Forbes, her nephew said. “And she still tithes to a church in Windham. We are so very proud of her and hope we can mimic her joyful, humble approach to life.”

If there are any lessons to be learned from this 103-year-old’s perspectives and approach to life, it might be that the path to happiness can be easy if one accepts life and lets go of things that cannot be controlled. But perhaps more importantly, to be a part of a family, biological or otherwise, who supports you and to whom you can support. <

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