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Amazing Seniors: Lillian Musgrave Byrne

Not many people get 105 roses from a television station on their birthday. But then, not many people live to be 105.

Lillian Musgrave Byrne celebrated her 105th birthday in July. It drew the attention of local and national media - and rightly so, for, as her doctor pointed out, she is one in 100. Quite literally. Only about one per cent of the population is blessed with that kind of longevity.

Musgrave Byrne remembers not only the First and Second World Wars, but the Boer War of 1899 to 1901 and the mounting excitement during the construction of the Titanic - and the stunned shock of its sinking in 1912.

Despite the need to use a walker, Musgrave Byrne still insists on wearing high heels and earrings. She also makes sure she gets a weekly manicure and hairdo.

She loves Trivial Pursuit and can recite passages from Shakespeare. In a soft voice, her northern British accent still prominent, she quotes Polonius's speech to his son in Hamlet, changing a word or two here, skipping a line there:

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice,
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment....

She talks of being inspired by the lessons she has earned from poetry, pointing to the fat tome resting in the carrier of her walker. "I like to get something good out of everything," she says with a smile, her gaze steady.

Whether it's church or Shakespeare, Musgrave Byrne looks for words of wisdom that she can apply to her daily life. It's a life that would make a good soap opera, says her nephew Bob Smith of Akron, Ohio.

The daughter of Robert Musgrave, a married British champion high jumper, and his mistress, Charlotte Thirlwall, Musgrave Byrne was adopted at age three by the daughter of the midwife who had delivered her. Thirlwall married an engineer named Thomas Smith and moved to the United States, eager to leave behind a life that in the 1800s was considered scandalous.

Musgrave Byrne went on to work in her stepfather's company, chafing at not being allowed to go on to university. At 27, she married Frank Byrne, an attraction encouraged by the novelty of his pet white rats. They moved in 1967 to Canada, where they had two children, now in their 70s.

But in the back of Musgrave Byrne's mind was always the nagging question of her "other" family. Little did she know that the subject of her existence was taboo - and would remain so for generations.

In 1971, Bob Smith, her mother Charlotte's grandchild, discovered a letter among his father's keepsakes that - after some fortuitous twists and turns - led him to Musgrave Byrne.

"I was ecstatic to find her," Smith, now 55, says in a telephone interview. "For all those years she had no background, no heritage. And it was a part of my heritage I didn't know about."

Breaking the code of silence despite family opposition and meeting his aunt has enriched Smith's life, he says. "She has given us so much. She shared her heart, her family and her life."

And at the last family wedding, when Musgrave Byrne was 103, she was up on the dance floor, Smith says with a chuckle.

And every one of Musgrave Byrne's birthdays from the age of 80 on has been cause for family get-togethers. She says the discovery of her long-lost family has been the single most important event in her life.

"I believe the reason that Lillian is 105 is because God granted her these extra days to spend with her family," Smith says.

"When we come to Canada, we come to celebrate our heritage and Lillian is our heritage," he says. "And once she is called home to be with God, we will still come to Canada to continue the relationship with her family that Lillian started so many years ago."

Lillian is proof of the changing face of today's retirement homes. Learn more about your retirement home choices.

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