For her 100th birthday, Doris Rittinger received 37 birthday cards.
At 100 years old, Doris has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and on two continents. She’s been married, widowed, raised a family, worked, retired and then some.
I first met her on a lovely fall day in her apartment that overlooks the Grand River. Her living room is decorated with beautiful canvases that she painted herself. Intelligent, engaging and kind as can be, Doris was stylishly dressed all in purple with bright red lipstick.
Although Doris’s story still has chapters to be written, her story is a shining example of what it means to live a full, good life.
The Life and Times of Doris Rittinger
Doris was born in Woodstock, in February of 1915. The war had started the year before and her father had enlisted at the age of 20. Her mother had originally come to Canada a few years earlier to be where she had family, a brother and a sister.
During the war, her Father was stationed in France. “When I was 10 months old, he wrote to my mother and said ‘you might as well come here.’ My mother’s parents were in England, so we moved and he met us there when he was on leave,” says Doris. “We crossed an ocean in the middle of the Great War.”
While in England, her mother had run a housekeeping business and had saved all the money for them to move back to Woodstock. After the war, like most families, Doris’s family lived through terrible depression.
Back in Canada, Doris’s father started a business selling goods to farmers. “My father peddled goods with a team of horses: Easy and Topsy. He took his van all through the country. It wasn’t until they started to build the Welland canal, that work got better,” says Doris.
“When they started hiring people to work on the new Peace Bridge, I gave my dad lessons in Customs and Immigration, and he got a good job. We had a nice house, and I had new friends,” says Doris. The year that they moved to Welland, was the same year that the Prince of Wales visited.
“As a teenager, in the evenings and after school, my mother always wanted me to play bridge with her. She needed a fourth. But you know I wanted to go skating,” says Doris. “One day, I was skating by myself and this young man came up and took my arm. He didn’t even say a word, just skated away with me. We went out for five years.”
Doris was 24 when they married, her husband 28. Although that may seem older than usual for the time, Doris’s husband worked for the Bank of Commerce, and the bank’s employees were unable to marry until they reached a certain salary. As Doris puts it, “We were going out for a while waiting, until finally my husband said to his boss, ‘I’d like to get married when I’m still alive, you know!’”
During that time, it was uncommon for women to work outside the home. Doris was raising two daughters while her husband worked, and on his salary they rented different apartments around town. There was something about renting though that didn’t sit well with Doris. “My husband didn’t think it was good for us to have our own home, but I said ‘I can’t help it. I want my own home.’’
The new house they had built cost them $10,000. They had borrowed money to have it built, and one day in particular, Doris’s husband came home and said he felt uncomfortable about their debt and how difficult their expenses had become. The next day, without saying a word to her husband, Doris went out and got a job at the hospital. She worked there for 3 years until their debt was completely paid off.
It was this same strong will and independence that allowed Doris to finish high school. “Lots of my relatives didn’t think I should finish school. They said, “What does she need high school for?” but I wanted to go. I always liked literature and I was terrified of using English improperly, so I wanted to continue, to better myself. Looking back, I’m always glad I did that.”
Another thing that’s remarkable about Doris is that she’s never stopped enjoying life. She first learned to ride a bike in her sixties and to this day, is an avid reader. “I don’t like Danielle Steel at all. But I do like romantic novels, just not the cheap, dirty ones. I also like murder mysteries because they keep your attention every minute,” says Doris.
When asked what the secret to a happy life is, Doris says “romance.” One of the most difficult times in Doris’s life was when her husband had cancer. “We were young and in our forties, when he had it,” says Doris. “I lived off just tea during that time.” Although her husband’s cancer went into remission, it returned many years later. “The hardest part was that his cancer returned after he had been given the “all clear” at his yearly checkup. After his cancer went into remission, he had to get it checked every year at Princess Margaret’s in Toronto. The year he died, they gave him the “all clear” and two weeks later when he was at his family doctor, they said it had returned and was in his pancreas. He died six weeks after that.”
When I asked Doris if she had any advice or wisdom to impart on young people today she said, “I think wisdom comes naturally with your bringing up.”