Most days, Elizabeth Hurlston does not remember how old she is. Other days, she does not believe it.
In the entrance of her South Sound home sits a reminder of her age, one she looks at in disbelief: the centerpiece from her last birthday celebration, spelling out “1-0-2.”
She turns 103 on Thursday, making her one of the oldest residents in the Cayman Islands.
Born in Grand Turk in the early days of World War I, on Aug. 31, 1914, Ms. Hurlston has witnessed a century of transformation in the Cayman Islands and across the Caribbean.
In 1919, her father Hugh Hutchings was named commissioner of the Cayman Islands, where Ms. Hurlston would spend much of her childhood.
It would be another 30 years, however, before Ms. Hurlston would settle in Grand Cayman as her permanent home. She spent much of her youth traveling across the Caribbean and the U.K., living in around 10 countries.
Although she studied to become a Montessori teacher in the U.K., the outbreak of World War II inspired her to take on nursing as well. In the international fashion typical of her life, she trained in Bermuda and Canada, and eventually accepted a post at the Adventist hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, where much of her family lived at the time.
Despite worsening dementia, Ms. Hurlston, on good days, will cheerfully recall memories from her life and her many projects, whether her work with the Girls’ Brigade or the shop she ran with her husband Otto called Caymandicraft.
As of late, however, her daughter Mary Bowerman and son-in-law Mike Bowerman must help share her stories.
Ms. Bowerman said her mother’s great passion was service to others. While she enjoyed photography, sewing and many other hobbies, she always found time to help her community.
“Even now, she can’t see very well. She doesn’t hear very well. But yesterday she said, ‘I just want to do something for somebody else. What can I do?’” Ms. Bowerman said.
Mr. Bowerman recalled her frequent mission trips to Haiti, a place she loved and called home for many years.
In Cayman, she would visit the hospital every week to meet with a man who suffered a traumatic work injury, leaving him disabled. Ms. Hurlston would dedicate her time just to keep him company and assist with simple tasks. While she never formally worked as a nurse in the Cayman Islands, volunteer work such as this reflected her knack for caretaking.
Ms. Bowerman recalled her mother’s patience with her as a child in Haiti and the dedication that made her a great teacher as well.
“She ordered things like early reading books and flash cards that they used to use in those days and that sort of thing. So I was reading by the time I was 3,” Ms. Bowerman said.
“I learned to swim at a very early age there with her in Haiti. I had my own pony. He was a dwarf horse. She, my father and I would go horseback riding.”
Returning to Cayman
In 1949, Ms. Hurlston met – or rather re-encountered – the man who would become her husband, Otto Hurlston. The two childhood friends from Cayman crossed paths again while visiting the islands on Christmas holiday.
“Traveling on the seaplane from Kingston, she happened to sit next to a Caymanian man whom she had known as a child and remembered as her brother Charles’s best friend growing up,” Mr. Bowerman said.
Within two weeks, the two were engaged. At the time, Mr. Hurlston was a widower and single father of a daughter, Mary.
Ms. Hurlston accepted Mary as her own and raised her as her only child. She now has two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
After working on banana plantations across the region, the Hurlstons settled in Grand Cayman in 1954.
Here, Ms. Hurlston worked with the Girls’ Brigade and taught Sunday school at Elmslie Church, where a memorial stone honors her mother, Gracie.
Visitors to the islands were often drawn to her import shop, Caymandicrafts, once located at Eden Rock. She sold Agfa cameras, Liberty London fabrics, Scottish cashmere sweaters and 4711 cologne.
Between 1988 and 1994, she traveled on 15 mission trips to Haiti and the Dominican Republic with her church. Eventually, the trips proved too difficult for Ms. Hurlston, who has osteoporosis. She cracked a rib as her group drove through the bumpy roads in Haiti and she was forced to stop traveling.
One of her proudest moments remains her recognition by Queen Elizabeth in 2001 as a Member of the British Empire for her community service.
She was also awarded a Queen’s Badge and Certificate of Honour for her contributions to the Caymanian community in 1976. In 2003, she was named one of Cayman’s Quincentennial Ambassadors.
Enjoying life after 100
Until her 90s, Ms. Hurlston remained active at church and would take short walks. Since suffering a fall near her 100th birthday, she spends most of her time at home, where she lives with her daughter and son-in-law.
Twice a week her friend Olive Miller comes to play cards or dominoes. Ms. Bowerman said neither can see the numbers well, but the two keep each other company and remain close friends.
Her music therapist, Julianne Parolisi, said she continues to enjoy song and still recalls the music of her youth.
“Basically, music for Miss Elizabeth is a way for her to really come into the present moment. It really lifts her mood and boosts her spirit,” Ms. Parolisi said.
“She is always willing to sing with me. It provides a way for her to reminisce about her life.”
She regularly asks Ms. Parolisi if she can sing alto. In a way, the request harkens back to Ms. Hurlston’s childhood when she would sit in the hammock with her sisters and sing harmony.
Although she typically cannot remember practicing alto with Ms. Parolisi, every week Ms. Hurlston gets a little better at it. She may not be cognitively aware of it, but the singing triggers memories and taps into times past.
“It’s touching to hear about singing with her sisters now because that’s what she and I are doing together,” Ms. Parolisi said.
The music sessions provide an opportunity for Ms. Hurlston to relax, enjoy her time and think back on a life well lived.