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A conversation with a 93-year-old Burlington resident about daily rhythms and staying hopeful

 An older woman sits in an armchair.
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
Sylvia’s life has been full of community activism, the values of her church, and some good old-fashioned adventure. After living in Europe and Canada, she returned to her childhood home in Burlington.

Sylvia Holden lives in the same house she grew up in, in Burlington’s Old North End, in what used to be the German section of town.

The 93-and-a-half-year-old is petite, with short gray hair and bright eyes. I met her a few months back at a community dinner, and I was drawn to her immediately — she was the oldest person in the room, but she seemed like the liveliest.

I visited her at her home, where she lives alone; her husband died in 2020, and her two sons live out of state. I wanted to talk to her about how she fills her days, now that she’s 93 ½.

The following is a transcript. If you're able, we recommend listening to this story.

Anna: How do you figure out what to do every day?

Sylvia: Oh, it's no problem. First of all, there's breakfast.

Anna: And then what?

Sylvia: Usually I'm on my way to go grocery shopping, or to the pharmacy or to visit someone. And sometimes there are free flowers, and I take them to someone who might have been looking in on me, or I take it to someone who's a shut-in. Or sometimes I even give it to a stranger who does a nice thing for me, like pump the gas.

Anna: Free flowers?

Sylvia: Free flowers! They come from Hannaford's or Trader Joe's. And they're given out usually on a Monday, and I always have somebody to take them to.

Anna: Why do you do that?

 A picture of a photo of a sign that reads, "Sylvia Holden Park"
Anna Van Dine
Vermont Public
After getting married to her husband, Clem, Sylvia moved to Montreal and then Ottawa. This park in Ottawa was named after her, after years of work in the community.

Sylvia: Oh, it makes me feel good. I know one time a young man was at the filling station with me. And he was so surprised when I gave him some flowers. He said, "Oh, I feel like crying!" And another time I met a man who was crying and just so sad. And I went over to him and said, "What's wrong?" And he said, "My wife's in the hospital and my life is in shatters." And I said, "Just a minute," and I reached in, and I pulled out some beautiful flowers. And he was just thrilled.

Anna: And when you come home from being out and about, what do you do with your afternoon?

Sylvia: I'm exhausted. But I have to get my things out of the car and figure out how to bring my groceries in. And I have the back porch arranged as an extra little room, like a dining room or a nook. And so I can eat out there almost all year round, because with the windows on it's like a solarium. And sometimes I bring out my telephone list, and I call people, mostly old friends. I call my brother every day at least twice. Or he calls me. And I also have to check in with my son at night that I've gotten up the stairs and I'm going to sleep.

Anna: What time do you usually go to bed?

Sylvia: Well, I try to go to bed — upstairs, lights out, by 11. But it's not easy to do. Because sometimes, there's a wonderful program — like The Seaside Hotel, that I loved. And it was on at 10 o'clock, so I couldn't make it. But it just seems as though that wonderful time of sitting in a chair and watching TV or reading is precious. And you don't want it to stop by going to bed.

Anna: Do you dream?

Sylvia: Oh, all the time. All the time.

Anna: What do you dream about?

Sylvia: Well, I think I dream about having adventures. Because my life was full of adventure. And I think some of these times maybe are replaying in my mind. But sometimes I wake up fortunate just before, "What am I going to do? I can't find my way. The trail is blocked." Or sometimes I'm mountain climbing and I don't know how to get down.

Anna: Are you ever lonely?

Sylvia: I am alone. Yes, of course.

Anna: But are you ever lonely?

 A black and white photo of children
Anan Van Dine
Vermont Public
Young Sylvia (second from the left) pets a rabbit. She spends a lot of time going through the family archives.

Sylvia: I am. I am. And often I start to look at something on television and I laugh, and I would love to have shared with someone like my husband. But I'm not for long lonely, because I have so much to do. And I think, "I'm wasting my time."

Anna: Are you afraid of wasting time?

Sylvia: No, not really. I think I realized that what seems sometimes like a waste of time is actually a creative time. That you go around the block and you meet other people, you look at the flowers, you see the seasons pass, and you're getting your legs exercised, and you're making connections. And I love picking up things on the side of the road, like books and people's stuff they don't want. And I think, "Oh, that's better than the one I have!" Or, "I know somebody who would love that!" And I just think that — I feel still the world is full of opportunities.

Anna: We live in a time where people are very concerned about the future. Whether that's politically or environmentally, or, you know, any number of things. You've seen a lot, you've lived a lot. Do you think things are going to be OK?

Sylvia: I think they're going to be fine. There are all sorts of new dangers that we're venturing into. I wish I knew how to make people realize that often the very people who are trying to help them are the ones they're railing against.

Anna: Do you think it would help if we all went around giving each other bouquets of flowers?

Sylvia: It wouldn't hurt. We all need bouquets.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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