BRUNSWICK, Maine — COVID-19 has brought much of the world to a screeching halt, perhaps none more than people separated from those they love.
But despite a travel ban and the need for social distancing, one Brunswick family was determined to celebrate the 100th birthday of their much-loved MeMee.
Orean Dionne, known to those who know and love her as “MeMee,” turns 100 years old Thursday.
When the Dionne family gathered to celebrate at Christmastime, they spent hours planning what they hoped would be the celebration of the century.
They reserved the Brunswick Golf Club and invited guests from all over the country to celebrate the 100th birthday of their matriarch at a lavish party scheduled for last weekend. Family and friends booked flights and made plans.
But earlier this month, the world changed.
“When the coronavirus started to creep into our area, we had to make a tough decision to cancel the party," Dionne's granddaughter, Kimberly Furbish Curless, said Monday.
The decision was heartbreaking for her family, many of whom don’t see her often … but who still marvel at their matriarch’s spark, perseverance and love.
Orean and her now-late husband, Bob "PePere" Dionne, raised four children – Carol, De Dee, Russ and Roger, in the Church Road farmhouse. The couple ran Bob & Orean’s Restaurant in downtown Brunswick. Later, MeMee worked in the Bowdoin College dining halls for years.
She is, the family says, "a pistol," and the light of their lives.
“She’s on the ball, she’s ready to go," 14-year-old Tanner Vogel, MeMee's great-grandson, said from Virginia. "If there’s a party, she’s going to be the head of the party.You know it’s going to be a good time.”
“One of the funniest things I remember, when she was 90 years old, visiting my parents in Virginia," her grandson, Sean Thompson, said via Facetime this week. "She picked up an axe and started to cut roots of trees.”
Determined to persevere, the family planned a private celebration for last weekend, but again, they were thwarted.
"As COVID-19 has amped up and ramped up, we then needed to make another tough decision to keep everybody safe and at home with their families," Curless said. "So what was supposed to be a very grandiose celebration has come to a screeching halt.”
Still, they didn’t give up. Surprises are, well, no surprise for the Dionnes.
“We’ve been doing it since I was a kid and she was probably the one that started all the surprise parties we’ve had," Thompson said. "In this family you have to be ready for anything and surprises are something that kind of makes us who we are as a family. She won’t expect it but she definitely will enjoy it."
A Facebook page Curless created to hold a virtual celebration has already prompted flowers, phone calls and cards from around the country – including from the governor and members of the Congressional delegation.
Wednesday night, her son, Roger Dionne, stood out behind the farmhouse and boiled crabs – MeMee’s favorite – for her to pick.
Then, early this morning, he and Curless crept quietly into the yard of the Church Road home. They scurried to hang banners, plant 100 pinwheels and place a sign at the roadside encouraging people to honk as they drove by.
But the surprise was on them. MeMee woke up around 6 a.m.
The first car honked at 7:11 a.m., and the second car just minutes later.
MeMee sat in her window, waving to each one.
“You know, I have the nicest family, starting right up from the babes to the grownups, and there’s my last one I had right there," she said. "And they’ve all been so good to us. Yep, they have.”
MeMee’s secret to a long, happy life?
“Behave yourself. Don’t get in trouble. And have a nice family like I did.”
The family hopes friends, family – even people they don’t know – will help continue the party in any way they safely can, including posting on the Facebook page created as part of the celebration.
They also created a 13-minute digital birthday card including videos from friends and family around the country, and uploaded it onto YouTube.
“We’ll do everything we can to bring her as much love as we possibly can on her birthday," Curless said. "Keep driving, keep beeping, roll your window down and wave, throw balloons out on the lawn, let this woman know she’s loved.”
Of the virus that has affected so many people around the world, MeMee said COVID-19 is terrible. Talking about it brought her to tears.
"You don't know," she said during a brief interview through a window at the house. "You're talking to me now, but gee, tomorrow morning, it could be a different thing. So you never can tell, for any of us."
"She’s just been a constant," Curless said, beginning to cry. "She’s strong, she’s funny, she knows how to persevere – truly I think she is the definition of perseverance. She’s a pistol. She’s the glue to our family and we’re lucky for that.”
“I can’t imagine it," MeMee said. "I really cannot imagine that I am still here at this age, really. I hope I go … one more year so we can go out and celebrate.”
"She’s really, really important," Vogel said. "I don’t know how to say this but she’s everyone’s world right now. She’s our love.