Doctors don’t usually perform hip surgeries on 100-year-old women. But when Tilly Oslender was 100 years old, she insisted on the procedure. She needed to be able to walk to her bridge games, after all. That’s just the kind of woman she was.
Eight years later, when she was 108, Oslender decided she wanted to go back to work. Over a century into her life, she felt she still had more to give back to the world, and more to gain from it, as well.
“When I would ask her, ‘What’s the happiest time of your life?’ she’d say, ‘Now is the happiest time.’ You know, when she was 110,” said her daughter, Roslyn Oslender. “She was doing things that she wanted to do. And she loved to work … she was very good at what she did.”
Oslender, who died on June 1 at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto at 112 years of age, first found work in Canada as a finisher of suits and coats on Spadina Avenue. She came to the country in 1929 at age 22, from her hometown of Haisyn in what is now Ukraine.
She couldn’t get a job at first because she lacked experience, so she started telling potential employers that she was familiar with the work. When that tactic got her hired, she tried to learn the trade by watching her coworkers. But when Oslender followed the motions of another worker and ended up cutting a coat too short, she left that job and never returned.
After finding another job, Oslender became adept as a finisher of coats and suits – so adept that she eventually helped set the prices for finishing work. She also began modelling her wares for prospective customers. Oslender needed to make as much money as she could to bring the rest of her family over from Europe.
My mom’s the sweetest person you could ever imagine.
– Roslyn Oslender
Oslender was born in 1907 and was 10 years old during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The subsequent rise of the Soviet Union led to hardship for her and her large family, which was comprised of her father, step-mother, brother, three sisters and two step-sisters. That’s why she fled for Canada, following one of her sisters.
Oslender, who was earning $3 a week at her job, finally raised enough money to bring over the rest of her family all at once, since they didn’t want to separate. She paid an agency, but her family were not granted visas. Her family was stranded in Europe and Oslender lost her money.
When she was around 85 or 90, Oslender returned to Europe with her sister and daughter, to see her remaining relatives for the first time in over half a century. Her brother and his wife later visited Oslender in Toronto for the second half of the family reunion.
Family was always important to Oslender. She met her husband, Jack Oslender, when he tapped her on the back as she was walking down Spadina Avenue with a group of friends. They soon married and stayed together for over 55 years, until he died in 1990.
After he passed away, Oslender and her daughter, Roslyn, became even closer.
“It was a natural kind of transition. It was built on trust and acceptance and lots of love,” said Roslyn Oslender.
According to Oslender’s great-niece, Karen Bossin, who spoke at the funeral, Oslender would often say that Roslyn was her reason for living so long.
Tilly was a woman who was aware of her place in history and maintained her independence with grace and humour.
– Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
“She was so proud of Ros,” said Bossin. “She said she was the best daughter anyone could have.”
Roslyn attributes Oslender’s long life to their shared faith in God and love of Judaism, but also to Oslender’s positive outlook.
“Her attitude. Her strength. She just loved life, liked to live life to the fullest, didn’t want to miss a thing,” said Roslyn Oslender.
When her doctor would ask her how she lived so long, Oslender replied, “You’re the doctor, you tell me.”
Oslender was always out and about, excited by the world around her and eager to share it with her loved ones. When she was passionate about something, she really committed to it. For example, she started the Forest Hill Library Friendship Club bridge group with then-librarian Kay Gardiner, who would go on to become a Toronto city councillor. At its peak, the club had over 80 members and Oslender served as its president for 25 years.
She also loved music, especially the music at her neighbourhood synagogues. She often attended Holy Blossom’s music program for seniors and regularly attended Beth Tzedec services with her daughter. She would have been proud to know that four rabbis and two cantors participated in her funeral service.
“Tilly was a woman who was aware of her place in history and maintained her independence with grace and humour,” wrote Beth Tzedec Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl in an email to The CJN. “We celebrated her in many ways: with children on Purim and by having her give blessings to b’nei mitzvah and to rabbinical students.”
It was all part of what made Oslender so special, said Roslyn.
“My mom’s the sweetest person you could ever imagine. So bright and so astute, so clever, tremendous qualities. You could take each one of those qualities and make it special, but it was the way all those qualities came together that made the magic of Tilly,” she said. “In her way, she is magical. And everybody who met her loved her. It was like an instant love everywhere.”