The 100-year-old who partied with the 'Queen' and her corgis

by Clare de Lore / 28 January, 2018
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Sidney with the “Queen” (actress Judy Rankin). Photo/Tony Nyberg

There are now 558 New Zealanders aged 100 or older. So, what’s it like to be a “super-ager”? Sidney Green celebrated her 100th birthday with a party including family and friends, some corgis and a woman bearing a striking resemblance to the Queen. 

Reading through her family tree several decades ago, Sidney Green realised none of her ancestors had reached 100. She set herself that goal and last month achieved her target.

It’s not something that would have ever been expected when she was born during World War I and named after an uncle killed at Passchendaele in 1917.

During World War II, she was given just seven hours’ notice to pull off a small but stylish wedding to her officer husband. Sidney and Max enjoyed 73 years of marriage before his death three years ago. Today, Wellington-born Sidney lives independently in her own home in Auckland, near her three children, Sue, Jenny and Roger.

Sidney could pass for a woman a decade or two younger. She keeps good health and her mind is sharp. She has an exceptional memory, sparkling clear eyes and a ready laugh as she recounts stories from a life shaped by a happy childhood, two world wars, the Depression, family hardship, exotic travels and a continued interest in people and current events. Clues to her life, past and present, can be found in the small room of a rest home that is her temporary abode while she recovers from a broken wrist: a toy donkey from Greece, an ebony nativity set from Zaire, a beautifully hand-stitched bag from Kashmir and a small bar fridge.

Her uncle, Sidney Bertram Hodgson, a Wellington accountant before enlisting in the army, was killed in action at Passchendaele on October 4, 1917. He left a wife and baby daughter. He is buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. His namesake niece has, by contrast, lived an unusually long life, outliving her four siblings and many childhood friends.

Scenes from Sidney’s birthday party. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Scenes from Sidney’s birthday party. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Sidney is an unusual name for a girl. What’s the story behind it?

Uncle Sidney died two months before I was born. My mother already had two daughters, and I was to be the son and heir, so I must have been a bit of a disappointment right from the beginning. But they named me Sidney anyway.

What was it like growing up after World War I?

With the Depression and the rationing, it was difficult, but we survived quite well. We had half an acre of garden on Nicholson Rd in Khandallah and a lot of native bush. We had chooks, roosters and bantams running around. I would find their nests and eggs, and sometimes little fluffy chicks. That was the kind of life I liked. They were good old days. And we had a connection to the Marlborough Sounds. My father, Percy, who ran the Dominion Mercantile Agency, bought a bay, a farmlet, and he used to commute to work in Wellington when we went for holidays. Once, we went there for a whole year and did our schoolwork by correspondence. Bread and mail were delivered once a week by boat and that is how we returned our homework. We were very isolated and had to walk miles to see a neighbour. But it was a lovely life, with fishing, rowing and swimming. I don’t think I would have wanted that for my whole life, though.

Sidney with Max Green on their wedding day, February 9, 1942. Photo/Green family collection

Sidney with Max Green on their wedding day, February 9, 1942. Photo/Green family collection

One of your siblings was born prematurely and another died a violent death. What happened to them?

My brother Fraser was in a bank on Australia’s Sunshine Coast doing a transaction in 1975. It was 4.30pm, nearly closing time, when a man came in, clutching flowers, and tried to sell them to the tellers. He went berserk as he was leaving. He picked up a gun that was kept by the tellers for security, and shot Fraser, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was only 55, and left a wife and two children. He was our only brother, so that was so sad. They caught the man who did it, but he hanged himself in prison that night. So unfortunate. But we were lucky that my sister Pam lived at all. She weighed only 2lb [900g] when she was born. She was a tiny little thing, and they wrapped her in cotton wool. She lived to be in her early eighties.

Your wedding is a family legend. How did it come about?

It all happened so quickly. Max and I were engaged, and one day, on his final army leave before being deployed overseas, he came to me and said, “Well, we can either get married now or wait until after the war.” We both wanted to get married straight away. He climbed over the army barracks fence to where the Presbyterian minister lived, and the minister said he would marry us at 6.30pm the following day at the Presbyterian Church in Karori. My parents were in Australia, so I rang my very dear uncle to ask him to give me away, and he was pleased to do that. I went to town to find something to wear. It was February, sale time, and I got a blue dress and bolero from Kirkcaldies. We had about 30 guests. Max was an officer in the army and he invited his officer friends who were off duty and other people who were close by.

Sidney with her children, Roger, Jenny and Sue. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Sidney with her children, Roger, Jenny and Sue. Photo/Tony Nyberg

And the honeymoon?

Max had only two days’ leave, so we had two nights at the St George Hotel, then he left for Greytown. He didn’t know what would happen, but he was sent to Fiji. For the next two years, the letters were few and far between. A year before the war ended, a most unusual thing happened. They said his arches [in his feet] were too high, and they dismissed him. It was wonderful to have him home.

On your 70th wedding anniversary, Max told the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly you were still both in love, saying, “When I first saw Sidney, I was in awe. I was totally enamoured by her … and still am. And our friendship has sustained us through the good and challenging times.” What was it like as a young bride having your husband away at war?

I made it through those years with my work as a Karitane nurse and having tea parties with my friends.

Celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary in 2012.

When children came along, how did they change your life?

I loved children. I had been a Karitane nurse and I thought four children would be nice. But when I got to three, I thought that was enough. My son Roger was the only boy, and he often says he would have liked a brother. I keep telling him it is a bit late now!

Did you enjoy being a mother, a homemaker?

I was a home girl; I loved my home. We bought the Australian High Commissioner’s residence and it had a tennis court. We tried to make our home a place for the children to bring their friends to and have things to do.

What about your social set?

My husband would have visitors from overseas, and we would have cocktail parties. Women didn’t work then, and there would also be coffee parties. The children would be at kindergarten and I would have friends around, most of them smoking, although I never did. My husband was a chain smoker until he was suddenly taken to the coronary unit at Lower Hutt. The nurse took the packet of cigarettes from his pocket, threw them to me and Max never smoked again.

With her grandchildren Georgina, Michael and Kylie. Photo/Tony Nyberg

With her grandchildren Georgina, Michael and Kylie. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Max’s jobs enabled you to travel and also to enjoy domestic luxuries ahead of your contemporaries. What was his line of work?

Max used to run Zip Industries, so we got a lot of appliances as they came into Zip. The electric frying pan was exciting when it arrived. When he left Zip, he went to Unilever, which involved a lot of travel. We travelled until we were 85, and went from England to Italy, Scotland, Wales, France and Switzerland. We also went on cruises towards the end of our life together. I loved the Greek islands. We went to India and were on a houseboat in Kashmir for a week. We called in at little handcraft places and I still have the bag I bought there. We went to Zaire, which is where I bought my nativity set. It’s all handmade.

How was your 100th birthday party?

I had been anti having the party. I didn’t mind turning 100, but I didn’t want a lot of fuss. We had the nearest and dearest, about 40 of us. Roger organised the “Queen” [played by impersonator Judy Rankin] and the corgis. Roger had two corgis when he was a child, so there is a family connection to them.

The cake. Photo/Tony Nyberg

What do you make of the real Queen working into her nineties?

I admire her tremendously. A lot of people are anti-royal, but not me. Now Harry is engaged. I don’t know much about his fiancée, but I hope it works out.

What advice would you give them?

It’s difficult to say if you don’t know the couple well. I like Kate and William; they are down to earth. I do wonder what will happen with Charles and whatshername.

Camilla. Are you a fan?

No. I loved Diana. She fascinated me.

What do you think of the current state of the world?

Things seem very unsettled and a lot of horrifying things happen. I get upset hearing of the housing shortage and children going to school without food and shoes. I have had a privileged life, but also some adversity to deal with. I don’t know what will happen, but I am an optimistic person.

As a Karitane nurse. Photo/Green family

You’ve been pretty disciplined throughout your life. Surely there’s a luxury or two that you indulge in, maybe the odd tipple?

I do enjoy a demon drink. My children usually bring me a bottle of Tia Maria when they come through duty-free, and at night I have a little glass. I really enjoy that. I like my wine, too. You can keep a bottle of wine in the rest-home fridge. Every evening, the staff come round with a trolley and serve a glass of your wine at about 5.30. But their glass wasn’t very big and by dinner time I had drunk that. As you are limited to one glass, the solution was to get a bigger glass and I did! I keep another bottle for myself and my visitors in my little bar fridge (thanks to my daughter). It’s great for emergencies.

Any unrealised ambitions?

When my husband retired, we moved from Wellington to Auckland because our three children and three grandchildren were up here. No great-grandchildren yet. My cousin, aged 96, died a few weeks ago and she had 17 great-grandchildren. Here am I with none!

And what is the best part of turning 100?

Getting there. There is no secret to it. I have had a very good life and I am looking forward to more of it, with such things as robots and drones in the future. Yes, maybe a drone can deliver my wine.

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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