In 1912, Canada’s population was just over seven million and Robert Borden was prime minister. A loaf of bread cost six cents and there was approximately one telephone for every 19 people. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson was elected president and Arizona became the 48th state.
Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore lit up the silent screen. And in April of that year, the Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland.
It was also the year Kitty Cohen was born – and it might jar the mind to know that someone who was alive two years before the First World War started died only a few days ago.
Known for her relentlessly positive outlook, zest for life, sage philosophy and crackling sense of humour, Cohen died on Feb. 5, while visiting her son in Jamaica. She was 106 years old and tack-sharp until the end.
Kinetic, elfin and twinkle-eyed, she exercised and did yoga faithfully, ate little meat, was a demon at Scrabble, didn’t care for television and was willing to date younger men – 60 to 70 years old, preferably.
She loved all kinds of dance: clogging, step, ballroom, square, tap and folk dancing. Walking was also a great activity, she once said, because “it tightens your tummy and shrinks your caboose.” She even recorded a rap about walking: “Great for the lungs, great for the ticker. Can’t nothing get ya in better shape quicker!”
Among the last things she did was to grant an interview with community activist Avrum Rosensweig for his podcast. “The Lord has decided to keep me here,” Cohen told Rosensweig in December. “He must have a very good reason – maybe to show people that you can still live and jump around and dance around at 106. Why not? It’s all up in the brain. The brain is still operating. I’m not lost. I get up and first thing I do is thank the Lord for giving me another day.”
She was 101 when she became the oldest person ever to throw the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game (“They look at me on YouTube!” she exclaimed. “I’ve gone viral!”) Disappointed that she could not run the bases, she wrote to then-Jays manager John Gibbons, asking whether he would accompany her around the bags. Two years later, the team obliged, and her jog was “the most thrilling, unexpected, beautiful experience that an old lady of 103 can experience,” Cohen told CTV News.
But her love of dance prevailed and, in the same interview, she put out a call: “I want to find a dancing partner. I want to get on that dance floor and jive like I did when I was a teenager. That’s another dream. And there is someone out there waiting for me. I don’t care what his age, colour or religion. I just want to dance the way I love to dance. Please help me.”
That dream came true, as well, a few months later, when she and choreographer Blake McGrath danced cheek-to-cheek and did the cha-cha and Charleston before a large, cheering crowd at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ont. McGrath, she later recalled, was “such a nice-looking man. I think he did a decent job.”
Interviewers could not resist asking her the secret of such a long life, and she always obliged. As with many centenarians, it boiled down to keeping active, eating plants and fish, and having a positive attitude.
“Be nice to people and keep smiling,” she told Rosensweig. “A smile is your umbrella on a rainy day.”
The way to keep happy is to see before you a picture of joy. Whatever you’re looking at, let it bring you joy.
– Kitty Cohen
Sarah Leah Cohen (the “Kitty” nickname came later, when she saw it stitched on the sweater of a fellow ice-skater and liked it) was born on Dec. 29, 1912, in Midland, Ont., to parents who had both come from the region where Russia met Poland. Her father was a peddler and the clan decamped to Toronto in 1923, so they could be closer to a Jewish community. They lived on Kensington Avenue and her mother was a chicken plucker, earning five cents per bird. Cohen attended Harbord Collegiate Institute and worked as a clerk at a law firm.
Daringly, she took a cruise to the Caribbean and went on a cross-Canada train trip by herself, a rarity for a young woman at the time.
In 1938, she married Percy Koretsky, a furrier she had met while ice skating. The couple divorced after nine years. She later married Louis Cohen, who died in 1993.
Meantime, Cohen had returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from York University at the age of 60.
She also typed the manuscripts of the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s books. The two were born the same year and were close.
From her mid-90s to her early 100s, she completed Princess Margaret Hospital’s annual 30-km walkathon, raising thousands of dollars for cancer research.
A smile is your umbrella on a rainy day.
– Kitty Cohen
She welcomed computers and even used one (she had 37 friends on Facebook). Asked once what the greatest invention of her lifetime was, she replied that it was a car’s turn signal, “instead of having to throw your arm out.”
Seven years ago, Cohen moved to the Terraces of Baycrest retirement residence. Shawn Fremeth, a social worker there, remembered “a people person who always had a flower in her hair, a smile on her face and a skip in her step. She lived life to the absolute fullest and had an incredibly positive attitude. If you could just bottle it.”
As for the modern age, she felt there was too much war and greed today, and that guns should be outlawed.
“The way to keep happy is to see before you a picture of joy. Whatever you’re looking at, let it bring you joy,” she advised, and expect the unexpected. “Life has many surprises. So you’re lucky if you meet the right people and enjoy life with the right people. Families should be in touch with each other. They should worry about each other.”
She stressed the need to work both body and mind. “It’s important that we move our bodies and feed our brain,” she told Rosensweig. “A brain has to be fed and you have to feed it with happy thoughts. You have to have the right attitude to be happy. I don’t get morbid. I don’t depend on friends for happiness.
“Don’t worry about why we’re here. We’re here because we’re here.”
She is survived by three children – Bernice, Shane and Randy – six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.