Barre woman, 107, has seen lots of changes in her lifetime

  • Bess Difley, 107, has lived in Barre since she was 2 years old. Contributed photo

  • George and Bess Difley in a wedding photo, 1939. Contributed photo

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 11/15/2021 1:47:32 PM
Modified: 11/15/2021 1:47:29 PM

Bess is 107! Not many of us can say we lived through two world wars and two pandemics, but Bess Difley of Barre has. She was born in 1914. A lot has happened in her lifetime, including 10 Constitutional amendments.

She was too young to remember World War I or the 1918 pandemic. Barre Historian Lucy Allen’s research shows that 197 soldiers from the town served in the war, 13 died, 900 town folks were sick during the pandemic and 22 died, more Barre deaths than from any of the wars. Scientists tried but were not successful in developing a vaccine then. Difley is thankful for the vaccine today and got her shots right away.

Her father’s work at the Barre Wool Co. was steady during the Great Depression of the 1930s so her family and the mill workers weren’t affected by it as many in the country were. He was the paymaster for the company, and she said, “People were paid in cash in those days.”

Her family lived in one of the company houses, as all employees of the company did. She said, “The company provided good housing, all were identical two-family units. We had electricity and indoor plumbing, but some of my friends still had outhouses for bathrooms and iceboxes for refrigeration.” Her family had a washing machine, but dryers hadn’t yet been invented. Difley said, “Monday was washday and everyone’s clotheslines were full. Life was very routine. We always ate baked beans on Saturday.”

Their house was near the railroad stop and hobos rode the rails during the Depression. Difley said, “They came to our back door and Mother always fed them. They sat on the back steps and ate. They were no trouble.”

The family had a radio and listened to music. Difley always loved music and enjoyed singing; in fact, she sang in a senior chorus in Hubbardston until the recent pandemic started two years ago, and she taught line dancing at the senior center in Barre for many years and participated in the class until she was 102.

Difley was only 6 when the Constitutional Amendment granted women the right to vote. When she reached 21, she was able to vote but recognized first-hand that it would take years for women to achieve equal rights in all areas. She experienced two unequal-rights examples after she graduated from Framingham State Teachers College in 1935. When she was hired for a teaching position in Barre, a woman’s salary was significantly lower than a man’s, and when she married her local boyfriend, George, in 1939, she had to do it quietly because a woman couldn’t teach if she were married. That’s how we got the term “old maid schoolteacher” because only unmarried women could hold that position.

They bought a two-family house near the center of Barre and started a family. Daughter Martha was born in 1943 during the time that George was serving his country in World War II. Bess had to take over his job of tending the furnace in the cellar. She said, “I hated shoveling coal.”

George was on the destroyer Glennon, which was blown apart by a mine at Utah Beach during the Normandy Invasion in 1944. He was injured and brought to a U.S. Army hospital in Framingham. After his recovery, he was assigned to a ship bound for Japan. Bess proudly proclaimed, “He went through the Panama Canal, which was completed in the year I was born.”

After his Japan stint, Difley learned that his ship would be docking in San Francisco and she boarded a bus — “California, Here I Come.” (Grandmother took care of Baby Martha.) While they were spending fun days together, the announcement came that the war was over. Difley said, “It was crazy. Everyone was yelling, screaming, hugging.”

“The ride home was not nice,” she said. “The bus was crowded and they made Black people stand.” It was her sad introduction to the situation in the South.

Soon George was discharged and Bess didn’t have to shovel any more coal. (George passed away in 1989.)

Daughter Jane was born in 1948, and when she was 4 years old, Difley went back to teaching at the elementary school in South Barre, a perfect location near her parents’ home so they could care for Jane. George needed their car for work so Difley and Jane rode back and forth between Barre and South Barre on the school bus. She continued teaching in the Barre system until she retired in the mid-1970s.

Difley saw her first TV show at her neighbor Margaret’s house in the late 1940s. They bought their TV in 1955. “I Remember Mama” was one of their favorite shows.

Telephone calls had to be made through the operator. “We picked up the receiver to call the local operator and told her our number — 187 — and asked to get connected to the number we were calling. It was a party line so people could listen. We had to be careful what we said.”

Besides her teaching, Difley was active in Women’s Fellowship at church, Women’s Club, Eastern Star, her Bridge group, chorus, her quilt group, and family trips. A necessary part of each day was her walk to the Post Office and regularly to the library and church a full life, for sure.

What does she do now, at 107? In a pandemic? She did give up driving at 99, and her daughters hired helpers to assist with her needs at home. She misses going to church because of COVID. However, she has maintained a lot. She still walks every day. (I took a walk with her and she has a sporty gait, and observes everything along the way.) She enjoys having outings with her daughters and going to the Farmers Market in the summer. She reads the newspaper and does the crossword puzzle. Her Bridge players have passed on but she enjoys the game by playing “Goren Bridge” in the newspaper.

Keeping her mind and body active and eating healthy food certainly has been her “fountain of youth.” Difley’s doctor told her, “All your walking did it.” One thing I did notice though — she’s starting to get gray hair!

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