Just shy of 100, ‘Lee’ Riendeau recalls hardships, celebrates life

Just shy of 100, ‘Lee’ Riendeau recalls hardships, celebrates life

Lee Riendeau says she’s thrilled to have made it to the century mark, especially after a youth filled with challenges. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

CUMBERLAND – Coming of age during the Great Depression, Elodia (Sevigny) Riendeau recalls an early life marked by significant challenges.

Her family rented a cottage at 267 Burnside Ave., in Woonsocket, heated by a single black woodstove on the lower level.

When they ran out of coal to feed the stove, the children would be sent to bed with a glass of wine, made by their father, to keep them warm.

Riendeau and her siblings never received a gift for Christmas. They celebrated over a family dinner, with fruit for dessert for a special treat.

“Christmas was the only time we had oranges,” she says. “It was my job to peel them and separate them by slices in a dish, one slice per person, but I was terrible. I was always cheating, I couldn’t help but take more.”

Today, “Lee” Riendeau eats an apple and an orange every day.

On Feb. 19, Riendeau, now a resident of Brookdale Cumberland, will turn 100 years old. The ninth of 10 children, the former longtime Woonsocket resident was born in 1918 in the Natick section of Warwick at the end of World War I.

Her parents, both from Canada, spoke only French, so Riendeau taught herself English as a child. She attended St. Ann School in Woonsocket until her parents could no longer afford the cost to send her. She dropped out of school in grade 4, her father of the mindset, she said, that women were not meant to be educated, but to raise families.

“In those days, whatever the father said had to go, so I took care of my family and worked like the dickens,” she said. “I didn’t have to go to school; I learned as I went along.”

In 1933, as the New Deal recovery program was launched and the era of alcohol prohibition ended, Riendeau’s mother died unexpectedly at age 54, forcing her 15-year-old daughter to raise the four youngest siblings.

“It took an awful lot of courage to take her place,” she said.

Taking up her mother’s mantle, she spent her days laboring over the children and the cottage long before the advent of contemporary household staples such as electric refrigerators, microwaves, pop-up toasters and frozen foods.

A single load of laundry would take the entire morning to complete, requiring Riendeau to move the wash tub into the kitchen from the hall, boil water in a pan and pull up a bench from the cellar. When they ran out of room on the clothesline, she would lay clothes out on the lawn to dry.

Every night, she prepared dough, waking at 5 a.m. the next morning to make crepes for her brothers – one cooked soft, one crispy, and one rolled with brown sugar. As her mother before her, she spent her evenings sewing clothes and underwear for the children.

On Sundays, her father smoked a cigar in a rocking chair with the children on his lap. He’d ask Riendeau to save his cigar ash for the children to use to brush their teeth. At 100 years old, Riendeau still has all of her teeth.

“We never went to a dentist,” Riendeau said. “My father used to pull our teeth himself with a pair of pliers.”

Growing up, Riendeau experienced her only alone time while at church, walking to Mass every morning as a reprieve from her life’s demands.

“I never had a girlfriend. I never had time to go out with any friends. I had to take care of the house,” she said. “I grew up alone and learned to take care of myself and do the best I can for myself and the others. That’s the way my life was. … I never thought about myself. My father told me to do something and I did it, no complaints,” she said.

In her 100 years of life, Riendeau said she had one love: her late husband Emile.

They met while in elementary school on School Street in Woonsocket. Lee would accompany him on his paper route, delivering the Woonsocket Call after school as her future mother-in-law watched from her window. In 1939, at ages 21 and 22, they were married.

“Someone said to me, Lee you’re crazy. You’re bringing another man into your life? Haven’t you had enough?”

Lee didn’t think she was crazy, and it took no convincing from Emile for her to agree to the marriage.

“I had somebody to love and somebody to care for me. He helped me. He grew up poor too, so he understood. What we had, we shared,” she said.

Shortly after the wedding, the United States entered World War II. Emile was called to serve in the military. Riendeau wanted to join the Army herself to be by her husband’s side when he left to serve in South Carolina, and later Europe, but instead took a job at French Worsted Co. Mill inspecting wool and khaki uniform threads for the war. When Lee was just shy of 30, Emile returned from Europe, and they welcomed their only child, a son named Emile Jr. Their son is now 70 and lives in Florida with two sons of his own, Christopher and Eric.

Riendeau worked as a receptionist for Woonsocket Hospital for 20 years, though she says her favorite job was working as a seamstress in a Woonsocket bridal shop, putting her years of sewing practice to work to help make women feel beautiful on their wedding day. One of her most memorable clients was a bride who was turned away from another shop because she was plus-sized. Riendeau took two dresses and combined them to create a gown for the bride.

“She was so happy she was crying when I fit her in the gown on the pedestal,” she said. “She told me she couldn’t believe anybody was so nice to her. I said, why not? Size doesn’t mean a thing. It’s the heart you have.”

Making others feel good was her favorite part of the job. She retired from the bridal shop at age 78, but to this day, if someone asks her to sew them something, she has trouble refusing them.

Today, in the face of hitting the century mark, she said she isn’t slowing down. She said she exercises every day, including using weights and biking. She never smoked or drank except for wine as a child, and a sip of brandy before bed with water to help her sleep. Her diet consists of a lot of vegetables and soups, with very little meat. “Like Tom Brady,” she says, though she loves ice cream.

She said she never complains about herself. Aside from maintaining a healthy lifestyle, she said a healthy mindset has helped her, though she never thought she’d make it to 100.

“I’m very happy I’ve lived this long,” she said. “I want to live. I love living. I love people. There are people who could care less whether they die. Not me. I’m not ready yet. I’ve got a lot of things to do. Life is too nice … people are too nice.”


A truly inspirational and well written story! Congrats to the subject and author.

Thank you for sharing your story.