“What country, friends, is this?”
— William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”
They come over the steel counter one by one, and down the other side, these styrofoam boxes filled with food. There, as part of a well-oiled machine, they are taped shut by Mabel Reome, 95, and sent to the next station in line. In quick succession they are packed in coolers, stashed in trunks and delivered to people in need in greater Watertown. They are, to borrow a phrase, “meals on wheels,” and Mabel has been sending them on their way for 27 years now.
Mabel has a plummy British accent that recalls a Rex Harrison comedy and a vivaciousness that belies her years. She carries her tape dispenser and magic marker before her like an icon as she walks from the kitchen of Samaritan Keep Home to the small closet that is the Greater Watertown Meals on Wheels office. And it is there, among the boxes and bags, paperwork and calendars, that her story begins.
Mabel is from Nottingham, England. She served in the Royal Air Force during WWII and met her husband, Arthur, a Malone native, while he was on furlough from the fighting in Germany.
A photo of them from July 21, 1945, is tucked away on a shelf in the office.
“The first time he saw me, he said he was going to marry me, and I was insulted,” Mabel said. “I’ll never marry a Yank, I thought.”
But they did marry. And after the war they ended up in Watertown. And it was a good marriage.
“He was a wonderful man. He really was. He kept his word. I’ve never known, in all the 43 years, my husband to lie,” she said. “If he did, I never found out. But he didn’t because we were very close. He was a good husband.”
Arthur, who was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during the war, died in 1987, leaving Mabel alone. Though, talking to her now, it’s hard to believe, Mabel insists that she is fundamentally shy. The loss of her husband left her depressed and isolated. It was volunteering that gave her life meaning again, though she initially resisted.
“I was pretty lonely. I got pretty depressed. I couldn’t seem to snap out of it. But now they’re my family and my friends and, you know, I hope I can work for another 10 years,” Mabel said.
She still volunteers at Meals on Wheels four days a week, taping the boxes that contain the dinners and preparing the bags that contain the lunches.
“I’m the bag lady now and the taper-upper,” she said.
During the war, Mabel worked in a records office in Gloucester and one weekend, delayed by snow, was late returning to the base. She was assigned to KP duty. “They put me in the cookhouse and I got very friendly with a sergeant there. And, oh, she was a nice person. Her name was Jill. Jill Wilson, I can remember to this day,” Mabel said.
“I had the best time in my life when I was in that cookhouse. I got good meals,” she said.
When she’s not volunteering, Mabel likes to watch CNN and read. Her favorite Beatle is John Lennon and she doesn’t have much use for the others. She’s a fan of Kate Middleton and Prince William — “he’s no slouch, either” — though her favorite member of the royal family is Prince Charles. She also spends time with her daughters Robin, of Dexter, and Jill, of Coatesville, Pa.
Looking through old photographs, we come upon one from a few years ago of her sitting on a motorcycle.
“Oh, I can be full of the dickens when I want to be.”
I ask Mabel if she has any regrets — marrying a “Yank,” leaving her native land, coming to America.
“I don’t know. I don’t think about that. I’m quite satisfied. Like I always say, I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” she said. “I wish everybody, when they have nothing to do, would volunteer and do some work to help. Help a brother kind of thing. Yes. I like to help people, that’s my philosophy. And I like to be good to people. Some people, that is. I’m not mentioning names.”
She laughs again, mirthfully, her eyes bright as she savors the joke.
To listen to Mabel talking about her life, visit http://wdt.me/reome.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at email@example.com.
NOTE: An earlier version of this column confused the locations of Mrs. Reome’s daughters. It has been edited to reflect the correct information.