Arlene Wiener (née Paghis) was born Jan. 8, 1914, in the Jewish enclave of Orhei in what is now Moldova. Her father died during the First World War, prompting her mother Jenny to sell her pearl necklace to afford passage for the two of them and her younger brother Irvine to Canada in 1920. They settled in Winnipeg, where Jenny’s sister arranged for her to marry a well-to-do older man. Jenny cooked elaborate meals and did the cleaning, but her new stepchildren mistreated her, causing Jenny to resent her homemaker role. As a result, Jenny only taught her daughter how to cook simple meals, telling her to avoid cooking well or she’d end up a housewife.
Arlene chose to be a housewife anyway, in 1934 marrying Max Wiener, whom she’d met at a house party. Max was so poor that the newlyweds slept on straw on the floor; he earned money sweeping floors and doing odd jobs while Arlene maintained the household books, marking every cent in a ledger. But the couple’s hard work began to pay off. The poultry breeding business Max subsequently started took off, and Arlene soon gave birth to sons Frank, born in 1939, and Martin, born in 1943.
Those early days taught Arlene to value her possessions. Frank remembers being puzzled that when she finally found the perfect couch, she wrapped it in squeaky plastic. “When you have nice things, you want to keep them nice for as long as possible,” she told him. She ran her house with precision. “I knew what day of the week it was based on whether we were having chicken, liver or fish,” says Frank.
Arlene loved to sleep in and she loved to read. Not only did she consume every word of the Winnipeg Free Press, she religiously attended an annual book sale held by a church at the St. Vital Mall. Mysteries were her favorite. She also enjoyed cards, and in the 1980s discovered bridge. She competed in tournaments weekly and in 1988 became a “life master,” a high achievement in competitive cards. After reaching her goal, she stopped playing.
It was during that time that Jenny became frail. Arlene, just over 70 then, promised her mother that she would live to be 100, and informed her sons of her new goal. Jenny died soon after at the age of 95. Not long after that, Max passed away as well. Arlene’s interest in longevity became more evident. “She was telling me about vitamins and antioxidants 20 years ago, long before it was popular,” says Frank. Both sons recall that their mother ate very small meals, a habit that’s believed to increase lifespan.
At the age of 90, Arlene called up Frank to announce she’d just finished exercising with her new personal trainer. “She’d read about exercises and wanted to make sure she was doing them right,” says Frank. “It was so she could be healthier.” Frank told his mother he was going to put a picture of her in the paper to celebrate her birthday. She put up a fight, saying that until she reached 100, she didn’t want anyone to know her age.
When Arlene was 91, Frank helped her move to Richmond, B.C., where he had settled, so she could be close to him. But she quickly became unhappy. For one thing, the supermarket was too far a walk from her new home, and she was determined to do her shopping independently. “That’s what keeps me going,” she told him, before moving back to Winnipeg.
At 93, Arlene was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor said that women of her age are rarely offered mastectomies, but she was determined that they operate. Arlene recovered fully, but soon her eyesight began to fail. That didn’t stop her from buying 45 new books at last year’s sale, and reading them slowly with the aid of a magnifying glass. But then, on Sept. 11, 2009, Arlene tripped on her cane and fell. A broken hip rendered her immobile and stole her independence. She had to move to a nursing home. On Aug. 11, approaching 97, Arlene died of complications from cancer that had returned.
When the brothers packed up her apartment, they found a large shoebox that contained more than 50 obituaries and birthday notices going back more than a decade. Every single person had reached 100. In the drawer was a note that Arlene had written to herself. “You’ve gotta be 100 or over, NOT 99 and three quarters,” it read. She had also left a note to her sons. “A very plain obit is fine with me,” she wrote. “Hope you guys got the good genes. Love, Mom.”