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City centenarian talks of well-lived life

KATE CLIFFORD, A Vergennes resident, will celebrate her 101st birthday with family members this Saturday, Sept. 23. She is entertaining when sharing a life of hard work, happy times, and more than a few “ups and downs.”  Independent photo/Steve James

VERGENNES — In the course of her almost 101 years on Earth, Vergennes resident Margaret Clifford, better known as Kate, has moved several times, both with her birth family and with her two husbands.  

But no circumstances were more dramatic than her family’s first move, away from her hometown of Harpster, Ohio, a little more than three years after the spry and lucid grandmother of 15, great-grandmother of 24, and great-great-grandmother of four was born on Sept. 23, 1922. 

Her very first memories are of the circumstances that led to that move. As Clifford tells it, her long life could have ended then.

“My mother gave me some candy, and was going to put me to bed for a nap. And all of a sudden we had a terrible thunderstorm. And my father owned a garage across the street, and the lightning hit the garage. And then it went up and hit another building at the end of the road. And an old man lived there, and he died in the fire,” she said. 

“And then the lightning struck our house. It struck my crib, my mother told me. So it’s a good thing she didn’t put me to bed. I remember that. I remember that house burning and that old man dying. I stood at the window and watched the fire.” 

Between those traumatic first memories and the new ones Clifford will make this Saturday celebrating her 101st birthday with her family, she can offer nearly a century of recollections, many happy, some bittersweet, and some tragic:

A childhood in a big family with a bit of hardship and a little mischief. A first husband lost to a World War II wound, leaving her with five children. A second marriage of 62 years, coinciding with her move to Vermont in 1951, a union that produced three more children. Doing laundry for her own large family in a river. Working hard inside and then outside the home. Three children predeceasing her. Finally, traveling and seeing the world. 

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” Clifford said.

YOUTH IN OHIO

While she talked about her life with a visitor in the tidy apartment she calls her own, she was always quick with a laugh at herself or with her daughter Connie Gilbert, granddaughter Lisa Demilt, and great-granddaughter Juniper Durfee.

After that fateful thunderstorm, her large family — she was a middle child among seven siblings — was OK, as was their home. But her father lost his garage and his business, and the family moved, eventually settling in to Hepburn, Ohio, living with her grandparents, staying until she was about 12.   

There she had another brush with death. She remembers wearing a brown checkered dress and falling into a fast-running stream. “And my brother caught me by the dress and pulled me back,” Clifford said. “He saved my life.”

Next came a move to Kenton, a larger Ohio town, and she lived there until the move to Vermont. 

Clifford acknowledged that while always a hard worker — a contention backed by Gilbert and Demilt — she was not a dedicated student.

“I could have been better than I was,” Clifford said. “I didn’t pay attention.”

Well, how about her behavior? “I was always getting into a little bit of trouble.”    

Clifford called the trouble “not much.” She said her older sister, who in her parents’ view should have known better, would usually face the consequences.

“I would do stuff and blame it on my sister,” she said. “My mother would say we couldn’t go somewhere, and I would coax my sister into going, and she got into trouble.” 

She would also collect a nickel from her brothers to complete their paper routes, but only if they paid in advance “so I could buy a bag of candy and eat on the way.” Clifford also collected a nickel and candy from an elderly woman who wanted company while listening to radio shows. 

She admits her parents might not have approved of all of her plans, but might also have decided not to pick battles with someone who now admits to being a little headstrong as a youngster.

“Yes. Yes I was,” Clifford said. 

Overall, she described her family’s experience during the Depression as typical.

“Sometimes we didn’t have a lot to eat,” she said. “But we survived.”

WORK & MARRIAGES

After school Kate worked cleaning house and cooking for the grandmother of Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin but turned to waiting tables and did so for a number of years after briefly working at a filling station during World War II, which began when she was 18.

“Back then the gas would gush back out on you if you put it in too fast,” Clifford said. “I got a lot of it on my feet. If anybody struck a match, I would have blown up.”

Four of her brothers served in the war, none being injured. But her first husband, Gale, whom she married when she was 20, was not so lucky while serving in the Pacific theater.

“He was hit over the head, with a gun probably. But that’s what caused him to die. He lasted quite a few years, but got a tumor from being hit, and that killed him,” she said. “My oldest son was six, and my daughter, the youngest, was five months old. Five kids and a widow at the age of 28.”

She worked nights at a restaurant so she could care for her children during the day. 

“It was pretty rough. But a couple weeks later I met my second husband,” she said. 

That was Ernest Clifford. And she rebuffed him. Repeatedly. 

“He saw me walking down the street and he stopped me and asked, ‘Would you like to sit in my car?’” she recalled. “I said no thank you. Just leave me alone.”   

Ernest persisted. After a few months, she allowed him to drive her on two errands, once to place a wreath on her late husband’s grave after a taxi failed to show up, and once to take her to visit her mother in the hospital.

“I said when I come out you don’t need to be waiting. I’ll call a taxi,” she said. “So I did, and he was waiting. I got in a taxi anyway.”

But Ernest eventually won the day.

“Finally I gave in,” Clifford said. They were married in 1951.

Granddaughter Demilt made a point: “He must have really thought something of her to take in five children.”   

LIFE IN VERMONT

They moved to Vermont not long after the marriage, and Ernest went to work for Simmonds Precision in Vergennes. Despite his solid career and government support for Clifford’s children from her first marriage because Gale was hurt in the war, money was tight. 

They bought a seven-bedroom Ferrisburgh farmhouse that lacked running water and functional utilities. 

Hence the laundry in the river, including sheets for eight beds. 

“With a scrub board,” Clifford said. “I did that for a long time. Can you imagine?”

They also didn’t own a mop, and Clifford had to “scrub the floor on my hands and knees.”

KATE CLIFFORD, SOON to turn 101, poses outside her Vergennes apartment for a picture with the youngest of her eight children, Connie Gilbert, left; one of her 15 grandchildren, Lisa Demilt, right; and one of her 24 great-grandchildren, Juniper Durfee, in Demilt’s arms.
Independent photo/Steve James

The family also had a big garden. 

“I’d freeze a lot, and can a lot,” Clifford said. “It was a lot of hard work.”

She finally put her foot down on the laundry. 

“I did graduate from the washboard to a ringer washer. And then it gave out. Finally I got kind of sick of that, and I called Jackman Fuels, and I had them bring me an automatic washer. Well, he (Ernest) was so angry,” Clifford said.

“They sat it in the kitchen, and I wanted it in the basement. Well it sat in the kitchen for a long time, a couple weeks, anyway. Finally, I said, ‘Well, if you aren’t going to set that up, I’m going to call someone in and have someone do it.’ Well that did it. He got it ready for me.”

Clifford said her children made life easier for her.

“They were all close together (in age),” she said. “And they didn’t quarrel, which was nice. They played games together, and played school. And they’d play store. I’d let them get the canned goods out of the cupboard, and I said don’t tear the labels off.”

There were plenty of pluses over the course of a six-decade marriage; Ernest died a decade ago.

“There were happy times,” Clifford said. “We went to Australia, England, the Cayman Islands and Hawaii. We took a lot of trips. But not until all the children were grown. We couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter for all those. But we had a lot of good times. We had a big garden, and every year we’d have a corn roast and invite in a lot of people, all the neighbors.”

Ernest also made home-brewed beer, and they at times sampled that or a sip of whiskey together, she said.

“I wasn’t brought up to drink, but I learned,” Clifford said. “When I married my second husband I guess I wasn’t drinking very successfully, so he said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to drink.’ He did a good job.”

OUTSIDE THE HOME

When her children left the nest, so did Clifford. She cooked at the former Clark’s Nursing Home in Vergennes and at Vergennes Union High School, and for years was a key employee of the former Fishman’s Department Store on the city green.

“She went to Boston with Betty Fishman a few times to buy fashion,” Demilt said. 

There were more tough times, too. One son died in a car accident. Two of her children succumbed to cancer, and another is currently undergoing treatment for the disease. 

She also thought she lost another son, a medic serving in the Vietnam War after two uniformed men knocked on her door.

“I wanted to know if he was dead or alive, and they didn’t know. They said they would be sending a telegram. I stayed up all night long waiting for that telegram,” she said. 

“It never came until late the next day, that he was alive. And they put him back out in the field, and he was shot again. He was shot three times, and they gave him two Purple Hearts. And they didn’t want to give him three Purple Hearts, so they gave him some other kind of medal. Good Conduct, maybe.”

Also on the plus side of the ledger, Demilt and Gilbert praised Clifford’s cooking, noting Dakin Farms once sold her fruitcakes.

“She’s just the best cook ever,” Demilt said. 

Clifford said her daughter and granddaughter were biased, but admitted Dakin Farms also wanted to market her baked beans.

“They wanted to can them and put my name and picture on the label, and I said no way,” she said.

Demilt pointed out Clifford had to be wrangled into talking to the Independent.

“We’re lucky we got her picture today,” Demilt said. “Can you imagine turning down your picture on Dakin Farms baked beans?”

 Gilbert said Clifford also was a talented seamstress.

“She made my first wedding dress, and all my bridesmaid’s wedding dresses,” Gilbert said. “And the flower girl’s.”

“And the cake, too,” Demilt added. “And my wedding cake. It was huge, with a staircase.”

But one recipe Clifford cannot provide is the one for longevity.

“Who knows why we live, and why some people pass away as little children, and let people like me keep on living? It’s a mystery,” she said. “A lot of people have worked harder than I have, and they’re still living, too. Maybe hard work does it. I don’t know. But I can’t tell you.”

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