The lines on her face tell the story.
It was her smile that drew me in, shortly followed by her piercing blue eyes.
Maria Christina Lette has an enduring gaze and her wispy, silver hair can be said to match her silver-tongue.
After another flash of the camera, she quipped: “Have you got your money’s worth yet?”
It was a lively jest.
Maria’s youngest child, Theresa Brazell, and her second eldest, Alphons Lette, quickly chimed in.
“She’s always had such a great sense of humour!” Theresa exclaimed.
“She’s never given up the fun,” Alphons said with a chuckle.
Maria celebrated her 100th birthday on 6 February at St Anthony’s Church, Toongabbie, with more than 200 family members. She was presented with a Papal Blessing from the Parish Priest, Rev Arthur Bridge.
With 12 children, 56 grandchildren and 99 great-grandchildren (and the 100th on the way), Maria’s secret to a long life could very well be a large and loving family.
“We mix so much together. To keep in touch with each other, we had a family newsletter going out every fortnight for quite a few years,” Alphons said.
Maria was born in 1916 in the Netherlands, growing up in a town called Hengelo, which is east of Amsterdam and close to the German border.
Her parents, Maria and Hendrick Boevink, had 11 children.
It was a different time. Maria grew up hearing the clattering hooves of horses pulling bread and milk carts in the early morning.
She would ride her bike around the town, passing corner stores and the market in the town square where her family would buy fruit and vegetables.
She was 19 when she attended the local dance hall and met Herman, the love of her life and the father of her 12 children. Herman was a machinist who made silk stockings.
When Maria was 23, they married and went on to raise 10 children before deciding to migrate to Australia.
“In the mid-1950s, nylon was invented. It went from silk stockings to nylon stockings and the factory my Dad was working in started to install the new machines,” Alphons said.
“But that meant they would need less than half of the staff. Six of the machinists, including my Dad, came to Australia because Holeproof in Sydney was still making silk stockings.”
Once in Australia, Maria and Herman had two more children and in 1959 they bought a house in Toongabbie, just a 10-minute walk from St Anthony’s Church.
“We’re very involved in the parish. Prayer and church were foremost with both our parents. Toongabbie Parish means a lot to us,” Theresa said.
Almost all of Maria’s children were married in St Anthony’s Church, as well as many of her grandchildren. Even some of her great-grandchildren have been baptised and received other sacraments in the parish.
Maria and Herman were married for 32 years before Herman died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 57.
“It was sudden. I was 11,” Theresa said.
“Mum did it pretty rough at the time,” Alphons said. “But she kept us all together.”
Theresa said Maria’s biggest regret was that Herman was not there to share this special occasion. “She always says, ‘My family is wonderful but Dad should be here with me,’” she said.
Maria’s 100th birthday was an opportunity for her extended family to come together to celebrate her long and blessed life.
“There was a lot of catching up to do between the cousins and the grandkids,” Alphons said.
The celebrations concluded with lunch at a restaurant in Seven Hills where Maria was presented with congratulatory letters from the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, the NSW Premier, and other political dignitaries from both houses of parliament.