She walked into the room with a beaming smile that lit up her entire face. Both of her hands were clenched into fists and raised high into the air. “I made it,” she says. “Who said I wouldn’t make it?” she adds with a chuckle.
This wasn’t a race, a finish line or even a contest … it was a celebration in her honor, specifically her 100th birthday!
The V. H. Boudreaux Senior Center in Lockport hosts a monthly birthday party for its members. This gathering on July 15 wasn’t that event. Nope. This was a special party celebrating the century mark reached by Melba Hebert. She knows everyone gathered there. She should. She has been a regular at the center since its creation, and actually was instrumental in its founding.
“My friend Nelly had eight children in a row and couldn’t get her housework done because several older women kept coming over to her house and bothering her,” Hebert says. “Nelly’s father, V.H. Boudreaux came up with the idea of setting a time for the women to gather and visit with Nelly. Before long, we had a woman from Raceland join us, a few more from Lockport and some from Mathews all gathering to visit. We soon outgrew the room in Nelly’s house and we moved over to the Town Hall,” says Hebert.
The group would visit and sew quilts together in that small room in the Lockport Town Hall. The ladies sold their quilts and saved all monies collected. Eventually they had enough to purchase their own place – a vacant bank building on Barataria Boulevard in Lockport where they still gather, sew and visit to this day.
Melba has been a permanent daily fixture at the center, sewing quilts and building lasting friendships with other seniors in the area.
“In all my years at the center, I never knew anyone making 100,” she says.
She drove herself to the center daily until she decided to relinquish her license at 90. Four years ago at 96, she stopped quilting but still makes frequent visits to the center.
Melba Hebert never imagined driving herself to the Senior Center in a car. She recalls going to church in her grandmother’s carriage pulled by two horses on dirt roads. She saw LA Highway 1 transformed in 1920 when the state added gravel to the longest street in the world. Five years later, shells were added. Melba saw it happen.
“In 1935, the roads were paved from Thibodaux to Golden Meadow,” she says. “To get to Grand Isle, a boat was still used.”
President of the Board for the V. H. Boudreaux Senior Center, Richard Hebert knows all too well the incredible life Melba Hebert has had.
“I was friends with her son,” says Richard. “We would play at Mrs. Melba’s house all the time and she would come out and bring us snacks,” he added. “She truly is a wonderful person.”
He speaks of those times fondly, with a childlike excitement even though he himself is approaching 74.
Melba Hebert has lived through five wars and has seen many inventions we take for granted today – electricity, automobiles, airplanes and spaceships. She saw a man walk on the moon. When she married her husband Henry in 1935, she finally had electric lights but still used a kerosene stove.
Like most people from “the greatest generation” they traded school and playtime when they were children for work – hard work! Families had crops and livestock to feed themselves and managing all of it took labor. Everyone pitched in to help with the chores day and night. Melba worked in the fields as early as eight years old, scrubbed pots and milked cows before and after school.
After she received her 8th grade diploma from the school located on the Mathews Plantation on Highway 308, which doesn’t exist anymore, she had to leave and continue her schooling in either Lockport or Raceland, something she never was able to fully do. Her mother became ill and she had to quit school to help around the house full time.
“I loved school. I was a great speller! Spelling was my favorite subject,” she says.
It’s remarkable considering she grew up speaking only French.
“I can remember very well not understanding the teacher when she asked my name in English. I did not know what she was saying,” says Hebert. “I spent many hours on the school front porch as punishment,” she added.
Melba was one of six children, and it was some of her older sisters that helped her learn English.
Everyone at the Center raised their glass of champagne, non-alcoholic of course, to toast Melba. The “100” candle is lit.
“I’m not that old,” she says with a laugh and a smile.
As she blew out her candles the room erupted into applause and cheers. When Melba began cutting her birthday cake, someone asked if she’d like to sit and relinquish the knife. “No! I don’t want to sit! Sitting down is for old people,” she stated emphatically.
She doesn’t feel old. “Thank God I have no pain or anything,” she says. “I stay busy and move all the time. I have always worked and keep busy,” she added.
Melba has a love of traveling and has seen many places. But her home in Mathews is where Melba is the happiest surrounded by her many, many friends and a large family. She has two children, eight grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. Five generations all of which gathered days earlier to celebrate her birth.
As the party concludes and everyone has eaten their cake and ice cream, Melba opens her presents. When asked about next year’s 101st birthday party she stated, “I don’t even want to think about being that old yet,” she says.
And why should she? You only turn 100 once and plans on enjoying every minute of it!
Happy birthday, Mrs. Melba Hebert!
Posted on Fri, July 18, 2014
by Marc Kimball, Contributing Writer