News Item 1483 of 1498
Miscellaneous: 2 Mar 2008
Born in Victorian England, Bessie Roffey clearly recalls First World War.
Alberta's oldest person boasts memories from 3 centuries.
One of Queen Victoria's regular routes through London took her past the neighbourhood where a wide-eyed young Bessie Roffey lived with her family.
"Old fat chops, I used to call her," the frail resident of High Prairie recalls with a smile. "She had a fat face."
The oldest Albertan, and likely oldest Canadian, celebrates her 111th birthday today more than a century after coming to North America or seeing that long-reigning Queen of England.
Roffey lives at the J.B. Wood Continuing Care Centre in this town about 360 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.
Until 2004, when she was 106, she still lived by herself in her house in tiny Kinuso, about 90 kilometres to the east, on the southern shores of Lesser Slave Lake.
According to the Alberta government, she is the only person of her age receiving health benefits, making her the province's oldest person.
An iron-clad verification of her age is difficult to make. Her personal records are protected by privacy legislation and her handwritten birth documents are likely in a church basement in England.
But according to websites that keep track of such things, she is likely the oldest person in Canada and the 50th-oldest in the world, about four years behind an American named Edna Parker.
Another Canadian, Mary Josephine Ray, is a couple of years older, but lives in the United States.
Bessie Maria Cazales was born on March 2, 1897. Her father was an actor and her mother a singer.
"My March hare, my mother used to call me."
To put that distant era in perspective, it would still be several years before Henry Ford started his car company, before the Wright brothers made their first flight, and before Beatrix Potter wrote Peter Rabbit. Work on the Panama Canal had yet to begin; Albert Einstein had yet to formulate his theory of relativity.
Roffey was named Bessie (not Elizabeth) for an aunt who was shot to death by a jealous boyfriend as she took her afternoon tea.
"So my mother always taught me never to flirt with men."
Roffey's father died when she was young and her mother put her two brothers in a boarding school and boarded a ship named Lake Manitoba to seek a better life with her daughter in Canada.
Over the next few years, her mother took what work she could find cooking and housekeeping in Clearwater, Man., Winnipeg and Saskatoon before marrying again in Regina.
"She was a gypsy in a way," Roffey says. "She would stay a month in a place and then we would move on."
Eventually, her brothers rejoined the family, which settled outside of Fort Macleod in southern Alberta.
"We weren't far from the red-light district," she says. "I never walked there at night."
Some of Roffey's fondest memories are from those days. She played house with her best friend and later went to the once-a-month free square dances. "When you greet your partner, pat him on the head," she sings. "If he don't like biscuits, give him corn bread."
In those days, a girl could never refuse a man a dance. Once, when a man demanded all of Bessie's dances, her older brothers persuaded him to leave her alone.
When the first car came to town, she recalls that it was a Ford. "It went putt, putt, putt, bang, and would stop," she says. "Then (the driver would) have to get underneath to fix it."
She clearly remembers when the First World War broke out in 1914.
"I got out in the street and hollered, 'Down with Germany,' " she says. "One of my brothers went, but the other wasn't strong enough." Her brother came home safely.
Not all memories are happy.
Her family moved to Florida for three years after her mother was scammed into believing she had purchased land for $10 an acre. Those were uncomfortable, racist times in the south, and the Canadians were soon ostracized by other whites for making friends with African-Americans.
She married Bill Roffey, a farm boy who lived outside Edmonton, in 1922. They stayed together 72 years, until his death in 1994.
Their only child, Don, was born two or three years later, and the family moved north where they ran a mixed farm.
"We had 10 or 12 cattle," she says. "We had chickens and sold the eggs to buy groceries. And I didn't like the pigs. They were mean and used to chase me out of their pen. But those were happy times until my Billy died."
Roffey loves to spend time singing the songs of her younger years -- Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag or You Are My Sunshine. She is content these days and makes no big deal about her age. She has never smoked and never liked alcoholic drinks.
"The Lord doesn't want me," she says, "and the devil wouldn't have me at any price."
Jeff Holubitsky, The Edmonton Journal
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