Fern Josefowicz remembers it all: doing the Charleston at Muskegon’s downtown dance halls during the Great Depression, working at the Amazon Knitting Mill when she was 18 years old, watching the Michigan Theater (now the Frauenthal Center) being built in 1929, the sprawling 80-acre farm near Big Rapids where she was born just months before World War I came to an end.
She remembers the milestones vividly: her wedding in 1940 and the births of her three children—”the happiest moments of my life,” she says. There are the stories of fishing for walleyed pike with her husband, Henry “Hank” Josefowicz, and their baby son on Muskegon Lake. Of learning to master Polish cooking for her husband, whose parents were from Poland. Of countless dances to her favorite song, “Blue Bayou.” Of raising her sons and daughter and her 43 years of marriage.
Fern Josefowicz remembers her life, the century she has spent on this earth.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” she says from her apartment at The Village at Park Terrace, an independent senior living community in Muskegon. “A wonderful, beautiful life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Josefowicz turned 100 years old on Sept. 11, 2018, and becoming a centenarian has brought with it a frenzy of parties—she essentially spent all of last week with friends and family who traveled from throughout the country to celebrate with her.
“I’m 100, but I felt 200 after all the parties,” Josefowicz says, laughing as she sits on her couch flanked by a sea of birthday cards.
This flurry of celebration is for good reason: 100 is a big number. It is a number many of us cannot understand the weight, or the joy, of—a number that can too often be boiled down to platitudes about “the secret” to reaching this land of triple digits.
Perhaps this is because so few of us can comprehend what it means to be 100, what it means to have the arc of history as the backdrop to your life. Of being a teenager as the country sunk into the worst economic depression it has ever seen, of being married just after World War II began.
“I’ve seen a lot of change,” Josefowicz says. “Computers are the biggest change. I’ve gone from washtub days to automatic, from coal furnaces to gas furnaces, from outhouses to inhouses.”
Born on her Norwegian ancestors’ farm near Big Rapids, she moved to Grand Haven when she was two years old and then to Muskegon when was 11. Her father worked on a fishing boat in Grand Haven, from where her family departed after her father landed the opportunity to work at a Muskegon factory that made records for Warner Brothers.
“It was a quiet town when I came here,” Josefowicz says of Muskegon. “It’s grown so much. The Occidental Hotel was here when we moved here. We used to have five theaters downtown. Everything was downtown; people came from all over to go shopping in Muskegon. I saw the mall come in and the mall go out.”
“For the future people, I’m sure it’s going to be a swinging place because everything has changed so much,” she continues. “They do have to change things for the future people, but it’s still hard to see everything go.”
Before she got married, Josefowicz worked at the Amazon Knitting Mill—an iconic building in downtown Muskegon that is now apartment buildings. At that time, in the late 1930s, she would often go out with friends to the city’s dance halls.
“We had quite a few dance halls,” she says. “We had Sammy’s club—Sammy’s night club was nice. It was downtown, on Second Street, upstairs of a clothing store.”
One night, just before an 18-year-old Josefowicz was about to hit the town for a night of dancing with her friend, she ended up meeting the man who would become her husband.
“The fellow who lived upstairs was a friend of my husband’s, “she says. “My girlfriend and I were going to go downtown to dance, and he said, ‘Where are you girls going? Do you want a ride?’ He had a coupe car.”
“So my girlfriend sat in the other seat, and there was nowhere for me to sit other than his lap. Then he called me for a date,” she laughs. “After four years of dating, we got married.”
Josefowicz and her husband went on to have three children: Vincent, who’s now retired and lives in Tennessee; Gregory, who resides in Ohio; and Janice, who lives nearby in Muskegon. These three, in addition to her 10 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and seven great-great grandchildren, have brought Josefowicz endless joy.
“If I gave someone life advice, I’d tell them to love your children and your husband and be there for them always,” she says. “Always be there for your children, no matter what happens. They need you. It’s very important.”
After being married for 43 years, her husband died of lung cancer in 1982. While learning how to live without him, she turned to something she had never done before: painting. Specifically, painting china dishes. Quickly maneuvering from novice painter to expert, she would travel to Detroit to painstakingly pick out the best china for her work—and her art even ended up in prestigious shows.
Eventually, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and had to stop painting, but her home—and the homes of many family and friends—are still filled with the china she labored over, each teacup and plate seemingly becoming a metaphor for life: delicate, colorful, fragile, and beautiful.
Fern Josefowicz knows this well. She knows that life, like her paintings, is filled with moments of color, of fragility, of beauty. And all of these moments, they have added up to 100 years: a century of family and friends, of laughter and tears, of raising children and dancing to favorite songs and getting to say: I have loved this life.