New Jersey 100-Year-Olds Celebrate Love on Valentine's Day

N.J.'s Clarence and Grayce Dwyer, survived death of fathers, hardships of life.

February 13, 2012, 2:23 PM

Feb. 14, 2012— -- At 100 years old, both Grayce and Clarence Dwyer have lived through a century of change. Born to Irish immigrant families, they both lost their fathers in the 1917 flu epidemic -- on the same day -- and were raised by young widowed mothers.

Their love, too, has transcended a century. Today, each conversation between the two ends, "I love you," then the other will pipe in, "I love you more."

One day recently, Clarence, who is a deeply religious man, looked at his wife and said, "Grayce, I think I am very old and that I am going home soon. Will you follow me?"

"Like the tail of a kite," she responded without hesitation.

The couple continues to live in their own home in Madison, N.J., with the help of an aide. They are still mobile, albeit with walkers.

After nearly 71 years of marriage, they have spawned four children, 17 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, the centerpiece of their lives.

Their life and everlasting devotion to family and faith echo the 20th century immigration story and the American Dream.

"We just always got along -- we came from similar lives," said Grayce. "We were raised by mothers who taught us what was important to have a valuable life, simply put -- take care of each other and your family. Life was not meant to be easy, so you surround yourself with good people and always have a strong faith that will help you through the hard times."

They were born in 1911 and 1912, respectively, the height of American immigration when 1.2 million, mostly Europeans from Germany and Ireland, entered the United States.

Clarence came from a large Boston family and was set on the path to the priesthood while Grayce dropped out of high school to work. They met at a dance in Brooklyn and married in 1941.

Today their children and grandchildren are in finance, education, technology and baseball.

On Clarence's 100th birthday last year, he got a card from the White House and from New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg. The same happened again for Grayce in January.

"Until very recently they have been fiercely independent and still were able to cook and shop even if it meant returning to the local food market more than once a day so that they could prepare their own meals," said their daughter Donna Dwyer Streaman, an instructional aide and mother of five from Westfield, N.J.

Both have had hip surgery and doctors "marveled" at their recovery.

"We believe it is a testament to the love they have for each other," said Streaman, who is in her 50s. "But it's very sad for me to look at them now at the end of their life."

Both are reasonably healthy, but fragile. "A year in their life is a decade to them," she said. "One little fall can make such a tremendous change."

The secret to their happiness (and longevity) is simple, according to their daughter.

"Their mothers were survivors and taught them important values such as family, a strong work ethic, and being grateful for every day and moment you have," said Streaman. "Mom will say, 'I think it is probably remarkable that we are still here with each other and able to speak about the old days and laugh about the good times we had together and with our family.'"

Love Lasts Nearly a Century

The couple -- "fabulous dancers" -- reminisce about swirling to the jitterbug and waltzing to the tunes of the times when they met.

"They sense each other's frailties and try to help each other bear the difficulties that come with age," she said. "I notice them smile during these talks, understanding they are back in the 1930s again, as though it were yesterday."

Both are nature lovers and walked everywhere. Clarence cultivated African violets, according to Streaman. "When I left home my room became like a botanical garden."

Clarence, a former accountant for construction companies, was born in Boston on born April 30, 1911. He grew up a "southie" in Boston's Irish neighborhood. His mother knew John F. Kennedy's mother, then Rose Fitzgerald. Clarence was an altar boy in the same church where the late Sen. Ted Kennedy had his funeral -- the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

As was typical in large Roman Catholic families, he was sent away at 14 to a parochial high school, then on to study for entrance to the Redemptorist Order of the priesthood.

"Fortunately, for the family it was not meant to be and as a very religious and private person he kept those reasons to himself," said his daughter.

A Boston College graduate, Clarence continues to follow his beloved Red Sox.

Grayce, born Jan. 12, 1912, had a similar upbringing in the then-Irish brownstone neighborhood of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. A former secretary in the guidance office at a Catholic high school, she dropped out of school. "But mother was determined to go back to night school and got her GED," said Streaman.

Today, she is mentally sharp, and even with macular degeneration in one eye, Grayce reads the newspaper every day and enjoys novels by Nicholas Sparks. She still takes time to write handwritten birthday notes to her children.

During Hurricane Irene last year, Grayce fell and broke her right hip and shoulder and was hospitalized. Her daughter said it was "incredible" that at her advanced age she survived surgery and the strong pain medications that followed.

Clarence's health has been going downhill for some time. He hearing-impaired and partially blind from macular degeneration and has a pacemaker. He has also developed what his family kindly calls, "confusion."

But he communicates clearly with his family, although he needs reassurance that Grayce is near.

"He just constantly calls out for my mother -- she can be right there -- with a patience that is unwavering," said Streaman.

"They came from a generation of simple people," she said. "Mother always tells me we always had what we needed. She asks of the next generation: Do you want it or just need it?"

"They never like a fuss and don't want to put people out," she said.

On Valentine's Day, their aide, Alice, will probably help Grayce make a cake for their special day. In the past, they celebrated holidays as a family, according to Streaman, and "never would care to bring special attention just to themselves."

"They both put their faith in God and I guess God feels he still needs them here for us," said Streaman. "Mom quietly says, I have to get strong for dad."

Last fall when Grayce was in the hospital, she told the doctor, "I just want to die in my sleep," according to her daughter. "And he said, 'You will.' And then my father calls, and she thinks she'll go up and take care of him."

Grayce said she wishes life weren't so difficult in their old age, but as her granddaughter Laura walks through the door with a smile on her face, her grandmother perks up.

"Mom smiled when she saw the nice weather and said, 'Soon, I will go for a walk outside,'" said Streaman. "And she will."

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