Still Spry, Isabelle Martineau Celebrates 101 Years

Isabelle Martineau laughs when asked when she retired from her secretarial job at Western Electric in North Andover, Mass. “When the government told me I had to,” she said. “I was furious! Fortunately, they don’t do that any more.”

Martineau, not used to being idle, teamed up with another woman from the office who had also been told to retire. They hit the road together, going to Ireland on their own and kissing the Blarney stone and researching their ancestors.

It was a trailblazing act for two women in their 60s, in the decade of the 1970s, but Martineau is used to blazing trails. She reflected on her long and full life earlier this month, when she celebrated her 101st birthday at her home in Birch Heights.

Martineau, originally from Maine, retains a Down East crispness in her voice and manner, even though she was raised in Lawrence, Mass. She moved to Derry in her early 20s. She remembered Lawrence as being almost like country, and sharply divided in ethnicities. “We minded our own business,” Martineau said. There was a Polish section, an Italian section, an Irish section and her neighborhood, the French-Canadian section. Her father was Irish, her mother French-Canadian. Her father worked for the telephone company, climbing poles, until a factory job opened up. “Lawrence was the biggest wool producer in the world,” she said.

Her mother gave birth 12 times, burying four of her offspring.

Young Isabelle was the only surviving girl in the family, and was sheltered. Though her brothers all quit school to work, her parents insisted that she attend high school.

“Of course we were poor,” she said with a shrug. “But we didn’t notice it. We had what everyone else did.”

She attended the Sacred Heart school for girls, graduating eighth grade. At that time Sacred Heart had no high school, so she ventured “across the river” to public high school. It was culture shock for the young Isabelle.

“I didn’t learn much academically my freshman year, but I learned a lot about other people,” she said.

She married at 17, to a French-Canadian man, Amie Rondeau. He fathered her three sons, Robert, Richard and Raymond. They separated in 1937, and Isabelle found herself a divorcee with three children. It was an unusual position to be in at the time, when most couples stayed together no matter what, but Isabelle made the best of it, working two jobs to support her sons.

The two jobs led to her second husband and the love of her life for 48 years. She needed to learn to drive a car to get to her two jobs, and her brother, a member of the National Guard, enlisted his friends to help. They all owned different types of vehicles, she recalled, including trucks, and she spent her free time learning to get out of a variety of cars.

One man, Phil Martineau, took more than a friendly interest in the young mother, and they eventually dated and married. “I didn’t want to marry him,” she recalled. “I thought he was crazy, I was three years older than him, divorced, with three little boys.” But Phil persisted, and they stayed together for almost half a century before he died.

“In order to get rid of him, I had to marry him,” she quipped.

Phil proved a dedicated stepfather to the boys, teaching them to swim and fish and ride their bicycles. “They idolized him,” Martineau said. “He was the best thing that ever came down the road for me.”

The girl who braved public high school never lost her taste for education, and with Phil taking some of the financial load, she was able to enroll in Merrimack College in North Andover. She took business courses, waiting tables to supplement the family income, and went to work at AT&T, later Western Electric, when it opened in North Andover.

In her retirement she took up bread baking and made more than 100 quilts. She and Phil also traveled, visiting nearly every state. They went to Europe, first with groups and then on their own.

“I designed our itinerary,” she said. “We went to Europe, Japan, China.”

Today Martineau looks after herself, in a tidy apartment at Birch Heights. She gets up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. “It takes all that time to put this body together,” she said. She showers, dresses, and makes her bed before sitting down to watch the morning news and weather.

“Then I look at myself and I say, ‘This isn’t the color I wanted to wear,’ so I go change,” she said. She has a pre-breakfast snack of yogurt and canned tomatoes before joining friends in the dining room. Then it’s quilting, crossword puzzles (“To keep my mind sharp”) or knitting.

She doesn’t read much any more, noting that the print is too small. She also no longer cooks, noting, “I miss it something fierce. But crying won’t bring it back.” One of her sons brings her homemade soup, which she heats in a microwave. And the gregarious Martineau also enjoys the communal meals.

She’s made one concession, close friend and resident Marilyn Ham said: “She used to take the stairs. Now she goes down in the elevator.”

Her son Richard died last year, at almost 80. Raymond is 75 and lives in Manchester and Robert is 77 and lives in Danville.