For a woman who was told at 44 that she had three to six months to live, Agnes Matava Lowe has defied the odds, and then some.
According to Robert Young, director of the Gerontology Research Group Supercentenarian Research and Database Division, Lowe is believed to be Connecticut’s third oldest living person and may soon join the world supercentenarian rankings.
The GRG defines supercentenarian as “anyone who has been validated to have lived to be 110 years or older.” Because of a backlog of applications for inclusion in the rankings, Lowe is expected to “join the world rankings in the coming months,” Young said.
“Luck definitely has something to do with it,” said one of her four grandchildren, Kevin Moyher of Clinton — Lowe is also a great grandmother of two — when asked to explain her astonishing longevity. “Also her attitude.”
The woman born during the Roosevelt administration (Theodore, not Franklin) and who recalled as a child looking out her window and seeing horses and buggies going by “never considered herself old,” he said.
That personality trait might refer to her offer to paint his house while he was traveling to China on business. She was in her 90s. Or, to her habit, around that time, of jumping rope.
“A maintenance man decided it wasn’t safe and took the rope away,” said her granddaughter Kathy Moyher with a smile, as Lowe, settled beside her, nibbled on cookies in the soft light of her bedroom in the Shelton home she shares with Kathy, 54, and her daughter Mary Ellen Moyher, 81.
It might have been her insistence on making Kathy grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch when she was 105. Or her sly wit that had her replying, when asked by the Agency on Aging about her greatest accomplishment on the occasion of her 110th birthday, “I’ll tell you in 20 years.”
At 112, “she plays cards and tic-tac-toe with her caregiver,” said Diane Fekete, director of Connecticut In-Home Assistance Community Relations. And every other week, “she goes out and gets her hair done,” Kathy said.
Born in October 1907 as the second oldest daughter of Slovakian immigrants, Lowe was 6 when her father succumbed to lung disease — a not uncommon fate from inhaling metallic dust in his work as a grinder of machetes and axes at the Collinsville (CT) Axe factory. He was 39.
Three years later, her mother died. She and her four sisters were separated and lived with different families.
“I had to go to work,” Lowe chimed in, her voice still strong, her words precise.
Back then, “if you were an orphan, families wouldn’t adopt, they’d expect you to earn your keep,” Kathy said.
At 14, Lowe was spending eight hours a day at the Excelsior Needle Company in Torrington. She earned $5 a week. The family that took her in charged $5 a week for room and board.
“My grandmother couldn’t even afford a pair of shoes,” Kathy said. “She got a dose of reality young.”
Overall, it seems, hers was not an easy life. She separated from her husband, Wilfred Lowe, when their daughter Mary Ellen was 2. “That was due to his drinking,” Mary Ellen said. He died 11 years later. Then, in her 40s, Lowe learned she had cancer. She was given three to six months to live. A hysterectomy and yearlong convalescence followed.
For all that, “my mother was never one to feel sorry for herself,” Mary Ellen said. “She always found it in herself to keep going.”
As a single working mother, Lowe took her place along the assembly lines at Waterbury Pen Company and at Remington Arms in Bridgeport, among other factory jobs, taking the bus each day to work.
At their modest second-floor Bridgeport apartment, Mary Ellen remembered her mother lighting the stove to heat the water so she could bathe in the set tub, a deep, utility-type sink. On the lot at the back of the property, she found time to dig a garden bed with “corn and all kinds of vegetables,” Mary Ellen recalled, and rigged a device to pick apples high off a tree to make apple pies.
Once Mary Ellen had a family of her own, Lowe routinely bounded up the steps to her third-floor apartment, leaving her daughter and granddaughter gasping for air behind her. And she organized bus trips for seniors, so she could go along.
Then there was the trip to Hawaii with Mary Ellen and her husband when Lowe was 90.
“We went on a boat to the five islands, and she went on everything,” Mary Ellen said. “She went through the lava tubes, she did everything that we did.”
On their way to Hawaii, they’d stopped in California to visit another of Lowe’s granddaughters. Lowe had been on a plane one other time, sometime in the 1920s.
“It was an open cockpit at a fair,” Kathy said. “She was on a date and needed a scarf to manage her windblown hair.”
That pretty much sums it up, it seems.
In spite of the adversity she’s faced, “my grandmother has really made the most of her life,” Kevin said.
“It’s just a blessing to have her here with us,” said Mary Ellen.
CT In-Home Assistance is located on 99 Hawley Lane in Stratford; cthomecare.com; 855-412-2273.
For more information on the Gerontology Research Group, visit www.grg.org.