Cilamise Abellard watches her favorite reality show from her bedroom every day from the moment she wakes up at 7 a.m. to the time she goes to sleep at 9 p.m.
The daily action unfolds in the kitchen of her daughter’s home in Nyack. And the cast of characters — her family — has been the center of her universe for more than 100 years.
Abellard, who turns 108 today, was born in the Ansavo region of Haiti and moved to Nyackin 1977 at the age of 65 to be near her six children, 16 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren.
“She wants to know everything that’s going on,” said Kathleen Guerrier, 43, a granddaughter who lives with Abellard in a four generation family home. “If you close the door to her room, which faces the kitchen, she’ll get up and open it real wide so she can see everything.”
Every year, her large family gathers to celebrate Abellard, but this year’s pandemic is keeping many members away. As a special touch, a firetruck parade has been planned by the Nyack Fire Department, at 6 p.m. to ring in Abellard’s 108th revolution around the sun.
On a FaceTime call earlier this week, Abellard, who only speaks Creole, sat in her wheelchair and spoke softly, letting her granddaughter translate for her.
When she arrived in the U.S from Haiti, Abellard, immediately assumed babysitting responsibilities for her grandchildren, most of whom lived within walking distance of each other in Nyack.
Dressed in a Haitian housecoat and a head scarf,the petite 5’1″ Abellard was nevertheless an imposing figure to her grandchildren — loving yet stern.
“She was big on making sure that you fix your bed every morning. That was her pet peeve. If she were to come into your room and your bed was not made, you were going to get an earful,” said Steeve Legerme, 33, a grandson who lives in Pomona.
“She enjoys being around family and loved ones and she speaks her mind. Everyone respects her for it.”
When her youngest son, Cazis, lost his wife to an illness, she moved to New Jersey to live with him and take care of his young children until they left for college.
“My grandmother pretty much raised us because my mom passed away when I was 10 and my younger bother, Scott, was six,” said Sherley Legerme, 36.
“Dinner was always ready by the time I got out of school at 3 p.m. I also recall getting in so much trouble for not making my bed every morning. And so now when I make my bed, it’s like a tribute to her because she would just get on me everyday, ‘get up, make your bed’.”
For the past few years, the family has made it a point to get together on Abellard’s birthday, which falls around Thanksgiving.
“We make sure that we show her our love and affection,” Legermesaid. “We all eat together. We get all the kids, grandkids into somebody’s house. We get cake, we get Haitian patties and we celebrate her each year.”
This year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Legerme, who lives in Atlanta, will miss the celebrations.
“It’s just going to be one family with her and the rest of us will need to join her via Zoom,” she said.
Early life in Haiti
By her mid-20s, Abellard had moved to Port-au-Prince from Ansavo and worked as maid. She did not marry; the father of her children was a farmer.
As a young woman in Haiti, she would often ride a horse into town.
“She was an equestrian who competed in races and won prizes,” said Kathleen Guerrier, another granddaughter. “I think that’s one of the reasons she’s remained so fit.”
Abellard was always physically active, preferring to walk everywhere well into her 90s, said her grandchildren. They attribute her love of fruit and root vegetables and her nature of not holding grudges as the secrets to her longevity.
“Her heart is very pure, so I can’t see my grandmother holding grudges. There’s zero stress. I believe sometimes the stress can come from, you know, not speaking your mind and just internalizing a lot of things,” said Steeve Legerme. “She always just speaks her mind, and never holds anything back.”
In all these years, Abellard, her grandchildren said, has never forgotten a birthday, remembering the dates and names of every grandchild and great-grandchild.
“No matter how old we are, if it’s our birthday, she’ll reach into her purse and hand us money,” said Kathleen Guerrier. “It’s always $10.”
Steeve Legerme remembers fondly the time grandma tried to save him from his own mother’s wrath.
When he was in second grade, he remembers playing outside wearing new clothes his mom had bought for when school would open in a few days.
“I jumped over the fence to go get the football and I got my pants caught in the fence and it ripped. So I immediately started crying because I knew I was going to get in trouble with my mom who told me not to wear those pants,” he said. “What my grandmother did to try to save me — she took those pants and tried sewing them up to make it look as if nothing happened.”
But mending was not Abellard’s strong suit.
“It was a terrible job. I remember it was just good enough for me to walk through the door,” he said. “My mom took one look and she lost it and I still got in trouble, but I have such a fond memory of my grandmother doing her best to prevent me from getting in trouble.”
Asked what she thinks her secret to longevity is, Abellard told her granddaughter Kathleen in Creole:
“It’s the love and care I continue to receive from my family.”
The centenarian’s advice to the under 100 set?
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Speak up.”