By David Holt
Now that she’s 101, Carla Furlong goes to bed early in her house in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she lives with her stepson. This, for her, is around 11:00 PM. Until recently, she stayed up late doing crossword puzzles, playing solitaire, and reading historical novels. She never needed much sleep.
If you ask Carla what she did on her latest birthday, in March of 2023, she replies that the phone rang off the hook. “I don’t think people think I’m going to last much longer,” she says with a laugh.
Carla carved her own way as a musician and music teacher in an era when it was hard for a woman to sustain an independent career in any field, much less a creative one like music. Both parents encouraged her ambitions, but she knew it would not be an easy path. The evidence is everywhere: her living room contains a piano, a harpsichord, a classical harp, a Celtic harp, and stacks of sheet music.
Well read and well-travelled, she can get by in multiple languages. Her conversation weaves effortlessly through a maze of stories, many with a comedic touch. Walking along the streets of the city, you hear the same audio snapshots. This is the Irish culture of eastern Newfoundland. It’s hard for mainlanders to keep up.
Indeed, a sense of humor and the ability to see the lighter side is one of the keys to healthy aging. Living into your eighties, nineties and beyond is one thing. Being relatively healthy on the voyage is another. The term for this is healthspan, which is the result of a constellation of qualities: lifestyle and health habits, mindset, unusual genetics, and luck.
In 2022, she was made a member of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, the province’s highest honour. “At 100 years old, Furlong was celebrated as a musician who toured the world with her harp,” says the announcement.
When the war interrupted her schooling in England, she returned home to St. John’s and became a supervisor in the Cipher Office, which translated coded messages about the position of ships in the North Atlantic, moving ship models around on a board to show their positions. Top secret. Even today she won’t say much about it.
Her father Frederick Emerson and her mother Isabel (Jameson), who grew up in Ascot, outside London, were brought together in part by their love of languages. Isabel came over with her school roommate, who was from Newfoundland, for the salmon fishing. She also swam and played tennis and golf. Like many women of her generation, she was at home in the woods and occasionally went hunting.
Carla’s social network extends from her home port of St. John’s to North America, Europe, and Asia. As she has lived more than a century, this network has varied. One of her talents is making new friends, an ability honed growing up in a sociable household where you never knew who was coming to dinner.
The family home, Quinnipiac, was a large Second Empire built in 1884 on the edge of St. John’s. Adorned with a grand piano and a large library, it was a social mecca. “I remember one Christmas dinner we had 14 nationalities at the table,” she told a St. John’s newspaper. Once the Vienna Boys Choir sang an impromptu concert during a reception in the dining room.
“When COVID came around I took all the ‘jiggers’ (vaccines),” she says. The term “jiggers” (as in “cod jigs”) is a Newfoundland term for any specialized object. She has little patience with those who are skeptical of vaccines and other government measures to reduce the impact of the virus. After all, she was born soon after the 1919 flu epidemic. Like everyone from that generation, she knows how much vaccinations, antibiotics, and other tools of modern medicine, including sanitation and hygiene, have saved countless lives from the scourge of infectious diseases.
Carla peppers her conversation with phrases from other languages and traditional Newfoundland sayings such as “if I’m spared” and “not bad for an old shape.” She greets the cats in Gaelic and signs off her letters and cards in Icelandic, one of the few languages her polymath father had not studied.
This year, as she did over the last couple of birthdays, she ate at home with a few relatives and a friend — takeout from a favorite restaurant. She eats mostly at home these days and has maintained a healthy diet for decades, largely plant based but which sometimes includes fish or the occasional moose stew she makes herself.
Like the rest of her family, Carla grew up loving the outdoors. Long weekend walks to and from “the shack” outside the city tended to be too much for many of their urban visitors. One of her favourite pastimes was berry picking, searching out partridge berries and other Newfoundland delicacies. She had been an ardent walker and hiker, with a naturally fast gait. A fall getting into a boat decades ago curtailed her mobility in recent years. Even in their eighties, Carla and her childhood friends often swam in the ocean in summer, a chilly experience now known to have health benefits.
Growing up, Carla was surrounded by music. Her father played the piano for hours and sang with a fine tenor voice. He also wrote music, collected traditional folk songs, sang in the choir at the Anglican church, and taught a course on music appreciation at the college that later became Memorial University. Later, he was one of the founding members of the Canada Council.
World War II had one grace note for Carla. It saved her from school in England, which to this day she refers to as “jail.” Then she attended Edgehill, a girl’s school in Nova Scotia. She delights in saying she “only has her grade eleven.” Nonetheless, she studied the harp and piano in St. John’s and at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, then at the Juilliard School of music in New York City where she majored in harp.
When she taught the harp at the Conservatory in Toronto, she performed for the children’s television show The Friendly Giant, a black-and-white staple of CBC English programming for decades. Half a century later she reprised the tune for guests.
Carla joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s, touring with Sir Thomas Beecham. In this era, orchestras tended to be exclusively male, except for the harps. “Tommy Beecham didn’t like women in the orchestra,” says Carla. On the upside, these experiences helped to hone her natural sense of independence and disdain for prejudice. She toured Scotland, Wales, and England with English comedian Vic Oliver and performed in the stage play Wish You Were Here.
Later, she returned to St. John’s where she taught music and became the harpist of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and the mentor to generations of music students. She played at the world premiere of her father’s composition Newfoundland Rhapsody, which was inspired by Newfoundland folk songs. She married Richard “Dick” Furlong, who also had the wit of the Irish. When the two traded one-liners over meals, it was hard to keep up.
Telling stories about her travels in Britain, she says “the British are characters. Canadians are pretty dull by comparison.” In fact, she still purports to be against Confederation, when Newfoundland and Labrador became a province of Canada in 1949. When she travels to the mainland, she says she is “going to Canada.” Toronto is still “Hogtown” and Ontario “Upalong.”
Her younger sister Anne was social and athletic, but attempted to hide her own intellectual ability. She graduated from the University of Toronto and worked as a secretary in the advertising department of Maclean’s Magazine. When her boss discovered she was the daughter of Fred Emerson, he asked, “What is a person like you doing in a place like this?”
Her younger brother Harry moved to Toronto at a young age and founded his own advertising agency. He could not be taught anything in a conventional way and today we would realize he probably had dyslexia. Carla says “if you asked Harry if he would like a book for a present, he would reply, ‘no, I already have one.’”
Nonetheless, Harry had his father’s photographic memory. He also had perfect pitch and after attending a concert he would come back and play the essence of it on the piano in his own untutored style. He was also a prankster who would pretend his Cadillac had broken down on the 401, just to keep himself amused. Ahead of his time, he rigged the electronics of his living room so they could be accessed remotely. “No-one has a mind like Harry’s,” Carla says.
Carla’s mother Isabel came from the Jameson Irish whiskey family. She was presented to the Queen at a garden party in the 1920s, a tradition the Queen later discontinued, probably because she thought of it as elitist. Regarding alcohol, “my favorite drink is vodka, but I can take it or leave it,” Carla says.
She gave up her teaching career when she was 99, her last pupil a medical doctor studying the harp in order to provide music therapy to her patients. “I don’t do much these days,” says Carla. “I cook a bit. I don’t go out so much in winter because it’s slippery.”
Healthy aging is a balancing act. It takes a rare blend of discipline, inner strength, and the ability to let go of what you can’t control. In particular, healthspan requires the approach to life that artists give to their work, an eye for detail while keeping the big picture in mind. Easier said than done.
Music is an art where the magic of sound comes from the minds of composers and musicians through a host of contraptions into the hearts of the audience. From symphonies to lullabies, it inspires and soothes. Without it, we would not be human. Carla Furlong is part of a tradition going back to Beethoven and into the unknowable past. Her focus on health is part of the gig.
Disclosure: Carla Furlong is David Holt’s aunt.
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Author: David Holt is the editor of silvermagazine.ca