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Saturday September 22, 2012

'I guess all the good stuff was left to me'

Longevity was a source of pride and humour for Nova Scotian whose greatest joy was being surrounded by her 13 children

Special to The Globe and Mail

HALIFAX -- Margaret Publicover had a family history of longevity, but insisted that hard work was really what made her live long enough to become one of Canada's estimated 7,500 centenarians.

Raising 13 children in a three-bedroom house on Nova Scotia's rugged eastern shore and relying on the sea for survival, Publicover had little time for rest, let alone leisure.

But throughout her 106 years, she managed to remain optimistic and eager to try new things. Two years ago, she flew to British Columbia for the first time to visit friends, and last year she both took her final camping trip and stepped into a hospital for health reasons for the very first time.

Proud to have outlived an uncle (if only by a year), Publicover died on Aug. 5 at the Eastern Shore Memorial Hospital in Sheet Harbour, N.S., after suffering a heart attack.

As well as pride, her longevity was often the source of humour. She was the youngest of five children, and joked to a local newspaper when she was 103 that she didn't really know the recipe for a long life, but "I was the baby, so I guess all the good stuff was left to me."

She was born in 1906 in Harrigan Cove, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Halifax, into a family that lived off the land and sea. "My grandfather would gather lobster that washed on the shore and crush them for feed for the pigs," she said.

"We had no electricity, no toilet paper for our outside toilet. We'd just find the softest sheet in the catalogue," she once told a Halifax newspaper.

She attended a one-room schoolhouse until Grade 6, and was just 11 when, on Dec. 6, 1917, a French cargo ship loaded with wartime explosives detonated in Halifax's harbour. More than 90 years later, she could recall "like it was yesterday" the famous explosion that killed 2,000 people, injured another 9,000 and levelled everything within two square kilometres.

"I was home with my dad, and he heard a rumble," she told a reporter. "My aunt came in and told us Halifax had blown up. You could see black smoke in the sky. Soot was knocked from our chimney to the floor and I cleaned it up."

A decade later, she found love and larceny on the ocean. Out in her rowboat one day, she came across the nets of fisherman Earle Publicover, and mischievously emptied them. "He never knew where they [the fish] were going," says daughter Audrey Butler.

The couple married on Dec. 22, 1927, and went to live with the groom's father. Four years later, with the help of horses, their house was moved across a farmer's field to its current location.

Publicover spent more than 80 years in the small, two-storey home where she and Earle raised their 13 children. "There were three bedrooms, and we had three of our girls in one bed until they were in their teens," she said.

All the children were born at home without the help of a doctor. "I can hear dear old Dr. MacMillan yet," she recalled. "Most times I had the baby before he'd get there because he had to get down here by horse.

"He'd come in whistling and climb up the stairs. 'I guess I beat you this time,' he said ... but I said, 'Move the bedclothes.' and there was Audrey!"

Work went from morning 'til night. While her husband fished, she maintained a large garden to help feed the family, washed clothes by hand, tended to the livestock, cooked and preserved food. She cooked from scratch, and her favourite foods were salt herring and lobster, although she also had a sweet tooth, enjoying cookies, cakes and her best-loved lemon meringue pie.

"There was no such thing as sleeping in," even on weekends, Butler says. "On Saturdays, she would make pies and cakes for the family.

"I never heard Mom complain. Having her kids around was her greatest joy."

Publicover didn't smoke and stayed away from processed foods as well as coffee, but enjoyed an occasional cooler, as well as loving her tea. She didn't nap, but made sure to get enough sleep every night. She never drove a car and, until he was too ill to attend services, would walk to church with her husband every Sunday. When he died after suffering a stroke about 30 years ago, son Jim came to live with her.

An optimist, she had little patience for complainers. "The young women today whine about being tired and I scoff at them," she told a local paper when she was 101. "They have everything to work with - washers, dryers, vacuums, dishwashers and bathrooms. And ... they are only raising two or three children. I tell them, 'Try raising 13, like I did ... with an outdoor toilet and carrying my water in from the well.'

"People today are never satisfied. In the winter, the clothes would freeze before we'd get them hung on the line. I think the greatest invention I've seen is the washer and dryer. You just push a button and do something else. When the buzzer rings, it's done."

Modern conveniences allowed Publicover more time to sit and crochet. She made beautiful tableclothes and doilies, which she would give to family. She also had time to go out to card parties and to play bingo a couple of times a week.

While she loved television, she blamed it for causing a lot of loneliness in rural Nova Scotia. "She always said: 'Once TV came in nobody came to visit no more,'" Butler said.

She found soap operas like All My Children and General Hospital entertaining, but was especially fond of the mystery series Murder, She Wrote.

Never afraid to try new things, she flew to Disneyland when she was 80 with Butler, her son-in-law and two grandsons. She went on all the rides except those, such as roller coasters, that posted health warning signs.

The hardest part of living so long, she felt, was seeing her siblings, friends and six children die.

"'Life must go on,' she always said. She was a tough girl," Butler says. "She always wondered why she was chosen as the one to live as long as she did."

University of California researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin offer a few hints in their 2011 book, The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life.

"Having a large social network, engaging in physical activities that naturally draw you in, giving back to your community, enjoying and thriving in your career and nurturing a healthy marriage or close friendships can do more than add many years to your life," they write.

"Together, they represent the living with purpose that comes from working hard, reaching out to others and bouncing back from difficult times."

Publicover leaves her children Jean, Helen, Audrey, Harold, James, Murray and Ralph; 35 grandchildren; numerous great and great great grandchildren.

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