by Denise Rush
Rita Tamulonis is a treasure trove of love and wisdom through the ages. She is our parish’s cherished keepsake. And, as is the case with all precious heirlooms, they unlock “secrets” of the past to teach lessons for the future. So, too, does our Rita.
Born December 15, 1918, a month after the Armistice agreement was signed (the document that officially ended World War I), Rita, at now 100-years-young, holds keen, eyewitness knowledge of a century’s worth of historical significance for all who wish to listen and learn. She recalls the stock market crash of 1929: “My parents lost their savings. I remember standing in line with them at the bank.” Then, there’s the aviator, Charles Lindbergh, his historic flight overseas, and the kidnapping and murder of his son: “He flew his plane over Lowell where I lived on his way to Paris. And, oh, I remember seeing the Boston Advertiser magazine covers about his son everywhere.” And, then, of course, there’s World War II: “I remember the ration books for sugar, flour, and butter.” We can all learn from the history of time.
That is a true statement. There are many important, good and bad newsworthy events that took place throughout Rita’s lifetime, ones that she experienced on a firsthand basis. And, they all can teach. But, it is not only those event-filled happenings over the decades that contain history lessons for us all, but, rather, it is her past that holds the hidden one or two “secrets” (or maybe even as much as 7) that hold the more important spiritual knowledge. In fact, her entire lifespan, at every juncture, teaches us all how to age with grace, by way of faith and devotion to the love of God. You may wonder, why the #7? Well, during the course of my interviews with Rita, she generously gifted me an extra copy of a book she had ordered entitled The 7 Secrets of Divine Mercy, by Vinny Flynn. That’s the type of book she reads. And, it is that book, that gift, which provided the inspiration for me to realize that Rita’s life story holds secrets, as well.
As for the main secret that she is frequently asked about, the one that would offer the key to unlock the mystery as to what to attribute her 100-year longevity…that one, she cannot answer in one simple sentence. In my opinion, it takes a lot more than a one-sentence synopsis. To that question, though, she gives her sweet characteristic little laugh, “If there’s a secret, it’s a secret to me!” Then, she adds, “I never smoked, never went on a diet, no drinking a lot of water, had whole milk. I just went along.” And, she does just that to this day, as Rita is a marvel at 100.
Imagine…she still drives! (Locally, that is). “I passed the test with flying colors,” she beams. She has an account on Facebook! She has The Holy Rosary with Mother Angelica (the EWTN nun) downloaded onto her computer, so she can recite it along with her and the nuns of the monastery! Rita does her own laundry! She completes her own light housekeeping and cooking! (Breakfast consists. alternately of oatmeal one day and an egg on toast the next). She drinks a cup of coffee only every other day. She performs her own personal hygiene (something most elderly need assistance to complete at her age). She keeps her mind sharp with word jumble puzzles and reads voraciously, sometimes even without glasses! Oh, one little trivial secret I found out about Rita—she’s not particularly fond of chocolate! These are just a few of the lesser known things about her present, everyday life that I discovered during our talks. However, if you take a stroll with me throughout the chronicle of her life as outlined below, you will, perhaps, glean even more insight, and maybe uncover for yourself the 7-or-so more “secrets” that I spoke of earlier.
Secret #1: Lessons in Her Ancestry and Early Years
Rita was born in Nashua, NH, as mentioned, on December 15, 1918. She is the eldest of her parents union: (Rita, Ruth, and Clare), all the children of Ann and John, both Lithuanian immigrants. Her parents arrived separately from Lithuania to America. They did not speak English, but learned the language, customs, and soon became citizens. The household was one of rented rooms to immigrants for 50 cents to $1 a week. Water closets (the toilets) were built as just that, closets, under the stairways, and shared with the tenants between the floors of the residence. Children bathed in aluminum tubs between chairs on Saturday nights, just to be squeaky clean for church on Sundays. It was a time when every little girl dressed accordingly for that, she said, “You wore a hat, you had gloves, you had a little pocketbook, and special shoes.” The family had moved to Lowell after Nashua, so her father could open a barber shop. Their rented house was in a courtyard. Rita continues, “All roads, not just ours, were lined with lanterns that required the job of a lamplighter to come and light the lanterns with oil on a nightly basis to illuminate the streets.” During the day, however, Rita walked those same streets on her way to her elementary schools—and church. (My take on the secret here: Parents, take heed: getting your kids to school—and church—matters, no matter the hardship. It will pay-off in the future.)
Secret #2: Lessons in Education
As the family’s parish did not offer parochial school instruction, she then attended public schools in Lowell from grades 1-9: The Lakeview Avenue School from first grade to the third. It is important here to note that Rita, the child of Lithuanian immigrants, did not speak English until she got to the first grade.
(FYI: For fun, as a young child, Rita played a Lithuanian board game, similar to Chutes-and-Ladders, with ladders of charity leading up, and chutes of penance, well…down. The game itself is illustrated strictly in Lithuanian. It is called Dangus, which translates to the English word as the game of Heaven. She still has it to this day! It is all worn and tattered.)
Continuing on in her education, she attended the local Moody School from grades 4-9. She later went away to a boarding-school-high-school, St. Francis Academy in Pittsburgh, PA, where tuition with room and board was a whopping $20 per month. She was taught there by Lithuanian nuns. After receiving a scholarship, she left to attend the University of Detroit in Michigan, when, in 1938, she received her teaching degree. She came home during the depression and took a job in the woolen mill in Dracut, MA for all of $12 a week! She worked there for only about a year, turning over the large majority of her earnings to her mother, as was commonplace in those days. (My take on the secret here: Keep and honor the 4th commandment.)
Secret #3: Lessons within Marriage
Word from a family friend had filtered out that she had returned to the Lowell area, and Rita’s secret admirer, a gentleman named Walter Tamulonis, knocked on her door. They began dating and within a year were married in St. Joseph’s Church in Lowell in 1941. (Her husband was a graduate of St. Anselm’s College.) When first married, they rented an apartment in Bennington, VT. Later on, he worked for American Locomotive in Schenectady, NY, and then they moved into an apartment in Amsterdam, NY.
Much later in married life, after all her six children (1 girl and 5 boys) were born, Rita kept busy being a good wife and mother. She did lots of cooking when the whole family was together. She explains: “I always made meals for 8 every day. Families always came down to eat with each other, and kids always came home for meals.” When her eldest child, Ann, went to kindergarten, Rita returned to her educational background and went back to work as a teacher. Rita’s mother, who lived two doors down from them, helped watch the children during that endeavor. (My take on the secret here: Family sticks together; meals shared as a family are important!)
Secret #4: Lessons from the teacher, A.K.A., Miss Black
Around the time of 1949, married women could not be appointed as a teacher in a school system, “You had to be a permanent sub.” Therefore, she took that position as a sub for a year at the Middlesex Village School in Lowell, making $10 a day with absolutely no benefits to teach an entire class of children. It seemed there was a color-pattern of names of the teachers there at that school: Miss White (kindergarten), and Miss Brown (first grade). When Rita filled in for Miss Brown, who was out sick with arthritis, she didn’t want to confuse the kids with them learning the long name of Tamulonis, so she called herself Miss Black! When Miss Brown didn’t return, the name, Miss Black, stuck. She stayed with that alias, Miss Black, for the rest of the school year.
Later, thinking that she would make more money in a different field, she left teaching to work at Raytheon in Cost Accounting, where she handled the ledger and spreadsheets. But, after 3 years of traveling and wear-and-tear on the car, she realized it wasn’t worth it, and she returned to her true love, teaching. She continued to teach at various schools in Lowell, and to differing grade levels.” She even taught Title I and pupils with learning disabilities, long before people knew how to best help them, or even what caused their problems. So, she researched the subject herself at the library. “Two of them had eye problems,” she discovered. But, she says, “The nicest feeling for a teacher is that by Christmas the children are reading, and by June, they were reading 2 books!)
Recently, some of Rita’s first grade parents (and pupils) have looked her up in Lincoln, and knocked on her door. “That touched me,” she points to her heart, “It really touches me.” (FYI: In 1965, Rita took the exam for married women to become appointed when it opened up for them—she passed.) Rita continued to teach in the Lowell school system until she retired at the end of 1978. (My take on the secret here: You never know the impact you make on someone’s life.)
Secret #5: Lessons from the Retirement Years
On January 9, 1979, Rita was the guest of honor at her retirement party. The time had come now for Walter and her to enjoy life together. For years, they had been residing as a family in what she called “The Big House” in Lowell, MA. She explains, “After selling that, we bought a place in Gilford and a place in Florida in Tampa, and then at Pinellas Park.” They went back and forth for 18 years, but Rita, didn’t really like it in Florida due to the heat. Nevertheless, she made the best of it, availing herself of the many courses for seniors taught there. The tables now reversed, Rita became the pupil. She took many craft classes: knitting, quilting, crocheting, macramé, tatting, and ceramics. She continued to keep busy doing all this and traveling back and forth to Florida until the day Walter surprised her, saying, “Let’s go back home.” That’s when they moved back to the area to be near relatives. They then purchased the mobile home on the lot where she has lived for the past 22 years. “When I came to Lincoln, I felt welcome, and I felt very much at home, finally.” (My take on the secret here: Sometimes you sacrifice for your spouse, make the best of it. Keep busy. Keep learning.)
Secret #6: Lessons from Loss
It was only 5 weeks upon returning to Lincoln when tragedy struck. Her beloved husband, Walter, had a heart attack, right in the kitchen of their new abode. It was all a devastating haze to Rita. Yet, she picked up the pieces of her life and carried on in Rita’s typical way of strength through faith: “God had a plan for me.” She needed to rely on that faith again when she encountered the loss of her eldest son on 9-11-2017. He had COPD and passed away in the backyard, again, right here in Lincoln. Rita continues to have her own health challenges, losing some of her physical vitality due to growing older. She still walks surprisingly fluidly, in spite of her physical ailments. They do not stop her. She still can’t believe she is 100-years-old. “My Dad died at 69 and my mother at 88,” she ponders. Her two sisters have also passed on. She gets help these days from her “choir of angels,” as she calls them. Her son, Mike, Rita’s other children, and extended family members help her out on a regular basis by visiting, delivering meals, fixing things around the house, or calling with reminders for her to take her medication, etc.
At present tally, she has 20 grandchildren, 31 great grandchildren and 2 great, great grandchildren. Between all of them, she pretty much has an “expert” in just about any and all professional fields. However, she remains as independent as possible, relying on local friends to help her in a pinch too. (My take on the secret here: It is true, you can get by with a little help from your friends (and family). Be thankful for your “choir of angels.”)
Secret #7: Lessons from Rita’s Spirituality
This last secret, I believe, defines Rita Tamulonis, and may just hold the key to her longevity. She credits so much power to prayer. “It’s proven to me as I went along that prayer matters. It’s our survival kit. God takes care of us, I found that out, I have little miracles that happen almost every day.” Rita adds, “Talk to God about it. I always say, ‘God, I’m asking.’” Every day Rita prays the Rosary. As mentioned earlier, she recites the Chaplet of Divine Mercy anytime during the day that she remembers. (She can talk at length about St. Faustina and the famous painting of Our Lord.) Her favorite prayer is For the Virtue of Faith, which seeks out enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. She faithfully attends church weekly and Adoration every Wednesday here at St. Joseph’s, missing only twice in 12 years!
FYI: A little story, actually… About 7 years ago, after a long day with friends at the Community Center, playing cards, etc, Rita drove her last friend home who lived near St. Joseph’s church. She, on the spur-of-the-moment, decided to pay a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament. But, it was a Wednesday, and Rita’s assigned day for Eucharistic Adoration was a Monday. A woman, who had already been there for 1-1/2 hours who was alone in the church, left abruptly upon Rita’s arrival, thinking that Rita was her “adorer” replacement. Now, Rita was alone in the church. She didn’t want to leave the Blessed Sacrament alone, so, she sat, walked around, lit a candle, talked to God, and repeated that routine until she sat down some more, and…well, after being very tired from the long day, ended up dozing off in the pew! At around 6 o’clock, Fr. John, pastor at the time, arrived with some church workers. He tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Are you all right?” She jumped! Rita had been there for about 2 hours herself! “You see, it wasn’t my time to be there,” she said, “but I think either myself or Fr. John (Rita can’t exactly recall) gave me the nickname: ‘The Sleeping Disciple,’ Peter, James, John…and I was the fourth!”
Cute story, right? It perfectly illustrates Rita’s devotion to Jesus, as she didn’t want Him to be exposed and alone in the church. Her eyes twinkle and she beams excitedly as she recalls a picture she once found of Jesus on the Internet: “He was in a purple robe, stooping down, and I thought to myself, “Now, that is what Jesus looks like.” Even more profoundly, Rita points out a lesson here for us all: “Think about it…Christ was born 2,000 years ago. Take 20 people at 100 years, and that’s me. That isn’t long. I’m one of the 100 years. One might think Christ is so far removed, but he’s only 20 people removed…only 20 people. They can fit right here in this room.” (My take on the secret here: This is a very important and powerful lesson for Rita to teach us: Jesus is closer to us than we think.)
Yes, that’s our Rita, she is and always will be a teacher. Her entire life is a lesson for all those who are willing to learn from the past for the sake of the future. Actually, it’s precisely that which concerns her. “Technology is moving too fast. Kids today have relationships with little boxes. Friends text each other instead of talking.” As for our country’s fate, “They took God out of everything,” she laments. She actually says she is glad she is at the tail-end of her life, as she worries for the future. As for hers, however, she continues to “keep plugging along” working her way up the ladder on the road to Dangus, reminiscent of the now worn and tattered board game still in her possession that she played with as a child. As you recall, the English translation of Dangus is: Heaven. That’s the end-game for Rita. She is optimistic she’ll get there: “I hope!” she giggles. Then, she thoughtfully muses, “I thank God He’s merciful.”
In closing, last April, Rita received the Boston Post Cane, a tradition started in 1903 by the newspaper, The Boston Post that bestows the ceremonial cane to a town’s oldest resident; Rita received it for being Lincoln’s. (My take on the secret here: Something tells me, she’ll never need any cane to reach Dangus.)
Our Parish Keepsake: The Beautiful Rita Tamulonis
A Treasure Through the Ages
Happy 100th Birthday, Rita!!!