By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
There in the kitchen she sits, perfectly coiffed, dressed in one of her favorite Chico’s outfits: royal blue pants with a microfiber tank in teal and an artesian embroidered jacket in shades of blue and teal.
Her face has smile lines from decades of a life well lived.
And as you listen to her talk, for a moment, you forget she’s lived practically an entire century.
Having just celebrated her 99th birthday, rather than gifts or tangible things, Clara Marcantonio wants something simpler: to ride in a bright red convertible, wind in her hair without a care in the world.
She says her secret to longevity is staying active and adapting to change.
Turning 99 seems to have little effect on this energetic mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
“If I have to write it down or someone mentions it, I say to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness … really ... 99 … where did the years go?”
Clara and her husband, Joseph, had called Westwood home for 48 years. She now lives with her daughter, Carol Karcher, and son-in-law, Vito Wasilunas, in Walpole.
Before Joseph died three years ago at the age of 94, the couple shared 73 years together filled with faith, family and friendship — and, of course, food.
She’s lived through decades of life’s struggles, successes and surprises, from the Great Depression of the 30s and the turmoil of World War II to the births of her children and grandchildren.
She was born on August 12, 1919, in a province outside of Naples, Italy, the youngest of 13. She was an infant when her parents came to America along with her sisters, Mary and Grace, and brothers, Frank and Angelo. Her other siblings died before she was born. Frank was a bandleader and Angelo was an opera singer. She, too, had her own artistic talents, having designed her own clothes and repaired old jewelry.
The family set sail from Naples to New York the day after Clara was born. From there, they made their way to East Boston, where many other Italian immigrants also settled. She said her mother was happy to be near her “paisanos.”
Clara’s mother, Maria Florinda, was considered the first lady of Orient Heights, and a key fundraiser in the effort to erect the statute of the Madonna.
From East Boston, the family moved into a two-decker in Roslindale, where they lived with extended family — aunts, uncles and cousins.
Clara attended Girls Trade and Practical Arts School in Boston with a dream of becoming a clothing designer. But the family couldn’t afford to send her to college. So she went on to work in a sewing store as a seamstress in Boston’s garment district on Kneeland Street and managed the store.
She and Joseph met in Roslindale. Their fathers were friends and played cards at a local Italian Club. Joseph’s father made his own wine. And according to family lore, that’s what brought them together.
“One time, dad’s father had dad deliver the wine to mom’s house,” Karcher said. “He spotted mom and that was the beginning. He asked her to a dance — but she had to give him dance lessons beforehand — and from there, it was history.”
They married on Easter Sunday, April 25, 1942, as World War II raged through Europe.
Joseph served in the National Guard and Army Reserves, advancing to the rank of colonel. While he was at basic training, young Clara lived with his mother on Cornell Street in Roslindale and she’d take the streetcar to work.
Later, Joseph attended Boston College and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and opened a dental office in Roslindale. Clara helped a few hours as receptionist and office manager.
In 1960, the couple bought their home in Westwood. They also enjoyed summer weekends on Cape Cod and eventually bought a home in Harwichport, where Joseph opened a second dental office.
Joseph often hosted more than 60 alumnus at Boston College’s alumni hall. There in the kitchen, you’d find Clara boiling pounds of spaghetti and making her famous meatballs and sauce.
“My mother was very much a perfect wife to my father,” Karcher said. “He decided what they were going to do, and she’d comply.”
Yet, if you ask Clara, she’s likely to say, “Joe was the boss, but that’s what I wanted him to think.”
Summer came, and that meant beach on the Cape. Clara would pack a lunch fit for an army and filled her station wagon with her three kids and all their friends.
“It was great,” she said. “I never had just one kid in my car.”
She still drove at 89, and remembers the day she crossed over the Sagamore Bridge and along Route 6A when a state trooper pulled her over.
“I wasn’t speeding,” she told him. “I never do.”
He looked at her license and registration and said, “Marcantonio. How’s Joe? You must be Clara.”
Needless to say, she drove away unscathed.
She and Joseph shared so many sweet memories and adventures.
One in particular came to mind.
It was Easter Sunday and the parties were on the Cape. Joseph surprised Clara with a new mink stole. He also surprised her by using the stole to store mushrooms.
They attended church, then went for Easter breakfast.
“As we were going back to the car, Joe spotted mushrooms from across the street,” she recalls. “He was a mushroom picker and could spot one miles away.”
He walked across the street, and she followed. He picked bunches of mushrooms but didn’t have anything to put them in.
“Ah,” she remembers him saying: “Give me your stole.”
She quickly replied: “My what?”
He said, “Your stole … for the mushrooms.”
She reluctantly gave him the stole. He turned it inside out and carefully placed the mushrooms inside.
A Positive Mom
Clara loves music and has always loved to dance.
She and Joseph went ballroom dancing nearly every weekend. Their dance spins and fancy pivot turns had won them a dance contest at the Wychmere Harbour in Harwichport — and the picture of them dancing made the front page in a local magazine.
Clara organized fashion shows sponsored by her church and often modeled.
Tennis was another passion. She played as early as 12 and up through her late 80s. Her peers had stopped playing, so, she partnered with players 20 and 30 years her junior. And Karcher said, “She seldom lost.”
Her unstoppable drive and zest for life continues to amaze her family.
Two years ago, in celebration of her great grandson’s 21st birthday, she joined him at the bowling alley and bowled a spare and a strike.
“These activities keep me not only in shape,” she said, “but make my arthritis bearable.”
Younger daughter Sue Zafarana considers her mother her idol.
“No matter what, she’s pleasant and happy and just a real positive person,” she said.
“I was born seven years after my brother and I didn’t have my brother and sister to play with. My mother was my playmate. She colored with me … inspired me … and has been very empathetic … teaching me to appreciate other people’s differences and be patient with people because they’re different for a reason,” Zafarana said.
“She can’t do what she used to do, but she has a positive attitude and never complains.”
Zafarana said her mother taught her men are different than women.
“When I was a teenager, I would argue with my father and my mother would sit me down and say men think differently. But as a teenager growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I wouldn’t accept that. I would ask ‘How could you say that?’”
“She just said that’s just the way God made us. And I kept that in my mind all the time. It’s not that someone is worse or better. It’s that they think differently and you have to understand that about life.”
Generous, compassionate and understanding are three words Joe Marcantonio uses to describe his mother.
He was 17 when he left home to join the Air Force during the Vietnam conflict.
From a young boy, he said that his mother had taught him unconditional love and acceptance.
“When you grow up in an Italian family, you’re taught never to abandon a family member … no matter what you’ve done in your life,” he said. “You’re always part of the family. There is nothing you could do that would make you think you’re not part of the family.”
A Day In The Life . . .
Clara is an early riser and enjoys her customary toast and favorite scrambled eggs and fruit.
She loves shopping at Chico’s boutique. And every Friday morning, she goes to the beauty salon.
“I feel better when I have my hair done,” she said. “That way, I can face the public. Otherwise, I want to hide in the closet.”
She’s still a big tennis fan, even though she’s not able to play anymore. These days she doesn’t know many of the current players, but still looks forward to watching the championship matches on television.
She misses the old days when life was simple.
Sunday was family day.
“We went to church,” Karcher said. “And every Sunday, mom cooked a roast beef dinner and we’d all sit around the table together … not only our immediate family, but my and my brother’s and sister’s friends, too.
“Mom misses that.”
She also misses the old neighborhood in Westwood. Doors were always open, and every parent looked after each and every neighborhood child.
“The kids would come to the house when I was home,” she recalls. “And when I wasn’t home, my kids would go to the neighbors’ houses. Sometimes we didn’t even know whether the neighbors were home or not. The kids were out on the street and we’d watch them play. We were parents to all the kids.
“And it was safe back then.”
But, she says, she mostly misses her dance partner.
“Joseph and I were very active. We did everything together,” she said. “I was always on the go, and sometimes he barely could keep up with me.”
Though she may not be as quick on her heels as she once was, she says she’s still able to twirl around a dance floor.
Clara says she wouldn’t change a thing in her life.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she said. “I’ve been very happy with my family and my friends, and what I’ve accomplished.
“Sometimes, though, it’s hard for me to remember everything.”
She smiled, paused, and said:
“Ask me tomorrow. Maybe I’ll remember then.”
Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, LLC. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.