TORONTO — Throughout Tilly Oslender’s 108 years on this planet, she’s worked hard and experienced innumerable joys and hardships, but throughout it all, she’s always maintained a positive attitude, a thirst for knowledge and a sharp sense of humour.
“A son goes away to university… he calls his mother and says, ‘Ma, I got married,’” Ukrainian-born Tilly begins, sitting in the dining room of her midtown apartment in Toronto, pulling a joke out of her mental Rolodex.
“She says, ‘You got married?! What’s the rush?’ He said, ‘I had to do it… she’s pregnant… she already has five kids, but we have nowhere to live.’ [The mother says,] ‘OK come here.’ He says, ‘Where are you going to live?’ She says, ‘Oh, I’ll drop dead.’”
Tilly, who celebrated her birthday on March 24, sat down for an interview with The CJN alongside her only daughter, Roslyn Oslender.
Despite having been approached by reporters in the past, her interview with The CJN was the first she has agreed to do.
She said she made a decision not to talk about her age after attending a program at a retirement home 36 years ago.
“They were saying their ages… I told them, at that time, I was 72. [They said], ‘You don’t look it, you must be making a mistake.’ They thought it was not true,” Tilly said.
On her way home, she fell and broke her wrist. “I became superstitious and chose not to talk about my age.”
But Tilly, whose birthday predates the discovery of penicillin by 20 years, is living proof you’re never too old to change.
Over the decades, she has needed to be flexible and adaptable. She and her oldest sister were brought to Canada from her native Ukraine by relatives in Toronto when she was 22 to escape the hardships brought on by the Russian Revolution.
She said Jews were oppressed and “everyone was trying to run away.”
Tilly, who was one of five siblings, worked tirelessly – at one point making $3 a week at a garment factory in Toronto – to save enough money to sponsor the rest of her family to join her here.
But she said after she paid an immigration agency to bring them over, “they closed the immigration and that was the end of it. They couldn’t come.”
In the decades since Tilly has been living in Toronto, she only visited them in Ukraine once, about 15 years ago.
“Fifty years had passed since they had seen each other,” Roslyn said.
“They have all passed away,” Tilly added. “I’m the only one left.”
Tilly, who was married for more than 55 years to her husband, Jack, who died in 1990 after a long battle with emphysema, said she worked hard all her life, but balanced that with an active social life.
In 2004, Tilly and her daughter joined Beth Tzedec Congregation, where she attends weekly bridge games, various programs and High Holiday services.
“My mom has a terrific attitude and always wants to know what’s coming up, what she can look forward to… She’s very positive, not a complainer, and she enjoys life and wants to know everything,” Roslyn said.
“She’s telling the truth!” Tilly jumped in.
“My doctor asks me, ‘How did you do it?’ I don’t know. I have no idea… I said, ‘You’re the doctor, you should tell me!’ I made him laugh,” said Tilly, who still lives alone, although a nurse comes daily to help bathe her, and her daughter, an only child who doesn’t have any children of her own, is her mother’s closest companion.
“She calls me about a dozen times a day,” Tilly said.
“She’s the only one. She is one in a million, and she doesn’t know what she does for me. She prolongs my life.”
“Stop it, Mom,” Roslyn interjected. “It’s not true. I always say it’s only God. If I’m an instrument, that’s great, because I love my mom, but I don’t prolong anyone’s life. But it’s nice that she says that.”
Although last year Roslyn threw a big party for her mother’s 107th birthday, plans were more laid back this year, likely a lunch date with friends and family.
“Every year on our birthdays, we go to the synagogue, always… thanking God,” Roslyn said.