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At 94 years old, Thomastine has seen the city transform. With nostalgia, she remembers the clinking of glass milk bottles on her family’s stoop. “We lived in Brooklyn when they had cobblestones and horse drawn wagons,” she laughs.
But the city was changing overnight. Soon, streetcars clattered through the streets and trains roared past apartment windows – it would be some time before they were moved underground.
Despite the excitement of a changing world, Thomastine’s life was far from idyllic. Growing up with a single mother and three younger sisters, Thomastine learned from an early age to depend on herself. When her mother struggled with paying the bills, Thomastine dropped out of school to support the family. Her first job was sewing in a Garment District factory. It was second nature to Thomastine who’d grown up hemming and mending her family’s clothes. Still, she couldn’t help dreaming of one day caring for children as a nurse.
It was very prejudiced back then.
After a few years, she decided she would apply to nursing school. But a fateful meeting with a school administrator dashed her hopes. One look at the color of her skin and he told Thomastine she’d never find work in a hospital. “It was very prejudiced back then,” Thomastine laments. Even today, she finds it hard not to imagine the life she might have had if times were different.
Dejected, Thomastine went back to sewing, never giving up on her dream of nurturing small children. Eventually, she met Arthur, a kindly widower with six little ones of his own. Ranging in age from six months to seven years, Thomastine quickly fell in love with the whole family and married Arthur.
Sadly, Arthur was not well. The trauma of fighting in World War II left him prone to drinking and fits of anger. Thomastine worked long hours, supporting the eight of them, scrimping and saving all the while trying to hold the household together. Over time the family fractured. The kids left home, afraid of their father and eager to be as far away as possible. By the time Arthur passed, Thomastine hadn’t seen the kids in years. Thomastine’s sisters have passed too, leaving her without the support of loved ones. Never one to indulge in self-pity, she looks out at her East Williamsburg block and jokes, “I think I’m the oldest person around here!”
Before the pandemic, Thomastine used her wheeling walker to venture outside. Her senior center is on the corner and she looked forward to getting out for bingo, friendly chats, and the occasional exercise class. “Those were good times,” she sighs.
While Thomastine appreciates the meals, it’s the few minutes of conversation that provide a respite from her isolation. When her big-hearted deliverer Jean shows up, they always spend time talking. Other days, she enjoys the company of young, energetic volunteers. Often, they’re shocked to learn she’s lived in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years.
As the streets begin to bustle again, Thomastine delights in seeing people just outside her window. In her nine decades, she’s been proud of seeing the city’s ups and downs. The one constant, she says, is New York never stays quiet for long.