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Milda Sebris: a centenarian celebrates

By SANDY LONG

If you’d like to know the secret to a long life, don’t ask Milda Sebris. She’s too busy celebrating her 100th birthday to reveal what those long years have taught her. Along the way, however, she’s been generous with good advice, much of which she has shared with her dear friend and former neighbor, Teresa Kehagias.

“Never breastfeed your children when you are angry,” Milda cautioned Kehagias on the birth of her first child, Leo. “The anger will come through in the milk.”

“Always try to avoid cutting down trees. They are the lungs of the earth,” advised Milda, who grew a hilltop garden without fertilizers or pesticides before the concept of organic gardening became a recognized practice.”If you buy bread and can’t understand the ingredients, don’t eat it.”

The pair met one day when Kehagias encountered the diminutive Latvian in the forest harvesting mushrooms, or as Milda calls them, “meat on one leg.” Head wrapped in her ever-present babushka (“to keep insects out of the hair”), Milda gradually confided her painful story to Kehagias over the years as they grew closer.

Born in Latvia and forced to abandon her family home due to political problems and World War II, Milda commenced a long journey that took her and her husband, Janis Sebris, to several countries, including Germany, where she gave birth in a Dresden basement. Daughter Ilze Ruta was born in 1943 and son Janis Ewald in 1945. In October 1944, a pregnant Milda was forced to flee her native country, leaving her husband behind to fight the Communists.

The bitter impacts of war permeated many of those early experiences, and in each new place, it was necessary to learn to speak that language, and to seek whatever employment they could find. Milda worked at gardening, harvesting fruits and vegetables, painting, milking and working in a garment factory. The couple reunited and ultimately ended up in America, where Milda even worked on call around the clock for a NYC limousine service as its only female chauffeur.

The couple saved for years and purchased property on Long Island only to lose that through condemnation proceedings.

In 1953, after spotting an advertisement that depicted property near the Delaware River in Damascus, PA, the family traveled to see the “paradise” that would eventually become theirs—Bush’s Glen (renamed Paradise Glen) and the Schoolhouse Creek lands in Damascus Township. The sight of the Delaware swept Milda with memories of the Guaja, a beloved river in Latvia where she and her family harvested perch, one of her favorite foods. The avid outdoorswoman would eventually spend many satisfying hours fishing the Delaware for shad, eels and other freshwater delights.

But the greatest tragedy of all still lay in store for the couple. Their children contracted an illness that gradually eroded their health over a 10-year period and resulted in their deaths, within months of one another in 1961.

Reflecting on her marriage recently, Milda said she married her husband partly because his mother begged her to do so. “I sent him away,” said Milda with a twinkle in her eye. It wasn’t that Janis wasn’t a suitable spouse; rather, that Milda preferred her independence and solitude. “I wanted to go my way,” said the plucky centenarian.

The ability to take care of herself enabled the petite woman to survive the challenges and tragedies that would have destroyed the spirit of most others. That fierce independence also made it possible for Milda to live on the property that she and Janis retired to in 1973. But fate would deal the couple one more blow. In less than a year, Janus died, leaving Milda to the company of several beloved dogs that were her companions throughout those solitary years. She endured there on her own until an injury several years ago resulted in a move to Honesdale’s Ellen Memorial Nursing Home, where she resides today.

In honor of her friend’s birthday on January 26, Kehagias organized a celebration. Daughter Elektra danced in her fine velvet dress as son Leo hauled out his fiddle and performed for Milda. Leo then joined Stanky and the Cadets as they brightened the scene with spirited polka tunes and other ethnic music, including a special Latvian melody. Milda’s eyes sparkled atop a beautiful grin as she reveled in the musical gift.

In search of the all-important answer, I asked Milda: “So what is the secret to a long life?” She paused, remaining quiet for more than a few moments, then confided slowly, “I know the secret.” Another long pause, eyes twinkling, with a mischievous grin and a lighthearted laugh, she revealed, “It’s a secret.”

Could it be laughter in the face of adversity, humor despite unspeakable horrors and the ability to find joy beyond searing loss and heartbreak? Only Milda knows.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Milda Sebris turned 100 years young on January 26 and enjoyed a festive celebration at Ellen Memorial Nursing Home in Honesdale, PA. Here, Teresa Kehagias and her daughter, Elektra, dance for Sebris, seated in a wheelchair at left. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Milda Sebris, right, and Teresa Kehagias were neighbors in Damascus Township. The pair formed a deep bond that remains strong to this day. Kehagias describes the relationship as one of the greatest blessings of her life, and urges others to form friendships with elders in local nursing homes. (Click for larger version)
Contributed image
The Sebris family arrived in Boston on April 22, 1949. From left are Janis, Janis Evald, Ilze Ruta and Milda. (Click for larger version)