2018-05-17 / Senior Savvy

Nonagenarian Keeps Moving, Keeps Giving

By Florence Archambault

Serafina DeAscentis knits shawls and finger puppets for hospital patients. 
(Photo by Lynne Tungett) Serafina DeAscentis knits shawls and finger puppets for hospital patients. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) If one were keeping a list of Aquidneck Island’s most kinetic nonagenarians, then Serafina DeAscentis would have to be near the top. The 90-year-old Newporter has been quilting, knitting and sewing for over 80 years, and contributing her skills to caring for the community.

She, and her husband, Hugo, have raised five children (one of whom is deceased), four boys and one girl, and have nine grandchildren. No greats yet but there is a grandchild’s wedding in the future. She and Hugo have lived all their married life in the same house that they built on land that was a gift from her father. Their home is next door to her childhood residence. Serafina has lived in the same Brightman Street neighborhood since 1930.

She and Hugo celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary in 2016 by reaffirming their vows at a Wedding Anniversary Mass held at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Providence. They now have reached their 70th.

Florence Archambault, of Newport, is 87 years young and well-known for her community volunteerism and teaching and writing family history. Florence Archambault, of Newport, is 87 years young and well-known for her community volunteerism and teaching and writing family history. In 1938, a neighborhood lady offered to teach Serafina’s mother to quilt, but her mother was only interested in the seamstress business she was running, so the neighbor taught 10-year-old Serafina how to quilt and to knit. Serafina put the piece she learned on away in a shoebox until her first pregnancy in 1950, when she took it out, bought a book, and has been quilting, knitting and sewing ever since.

In 1976, she taught at the former Swinburne School, on Pelham Street in Newport, and is one of the founders of Quilters-by-the-Sea, an organization devoted to promoting quilting on Aquidneck Island. She says that quilting has now become an art form, noting the many wall hangings that are now prevalent.

A stay-at-home mom, she made a business out of sewing, including drapes and slipcovers, for many years until Hugo retired and asked her to slow down because he didn’t want people in and out of the house. She still, however, does some sewing and quilting.

She volunteered in the kitchen at the Middletown Senior Center and often walked over there from Eustis Avenue until the Green End Avenue hill became too steep, so she switched to the Edward King House Senior Center.

Until she turned 86, she was a biker and a walker. When she was 85, she set out to do the 14-mile Ocean Drive ride on her bike, but only managed 10 miles before she had to call her husband to come and get her. The next year she gave up her bicycle.

She says that during World War II she rode all over Newport on her bike and hardly ever saw another rider. “I don’t know why,” she says, “since there was gasoline rationing and you would have thought more people would be riding bicycles. Maybe it was because we had such a good bus system.”

She has been involved in volunteering at the Newport Hospital for many years. In 2011, she took part in the Health Fair at the Teddy Bear Clinic. “The kids could bring in their sick or wounded stuffed animals and I sewed them up and then passed them to the person next to me who affixed a band aid to their stitches,” she says.

Now she knits finger puppets in the shapes of animals and people for the pediatric patients, to help console them in the emergency room or the hospital. She also quilts Comfort Blankets for the terminally ill patients. The hospital absorbs the cost for the backing and filling and she supplies the fabric. She emphasizes that she doesn’t need any fabric since friends are always giving her leftovers. She finds that the best and most economic backing can be made from flannel sheets, and that is what the hospital asks for because of the softness.

She still continues to drive and often ferries relatives and friends to their doctors’ appointments. For many years she participated in craft shows, but now only does the Christmas one at the Edward King House. She continually fills her days crafting and says her quilted pot holders are her bestseller. She can be found every Monday morning at the King House chatting away with the knitting group.

I didn’t mention that she also gardens and her backyard is a gardener’s delight in the growing season and her home is filled with flowering plants, but that’s another story.

This energetic and healthy 90-year-old puts many of us to shame. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes on the occasion of Julia Ward Howe’s 70th birthday, “To be [ninety] years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.”

Return to top