Originally published in Castine Patriot, April 13, 2017
Penobscot resident recounts lifetime of adventures
by Tevlin Schuetz
While it is often said that life is about the journey and not the destination, Retha Upton has lived life to the fullest on both counts. At 95, she has numerous stories to share of her experiences in different places, and her destination, Penobscot, is just as meaningful to her.
Born in Worchester, Mass., in 1921, Upton began her travels early when her family moved to Nova Scotia when she was 3 weeks old. Her family had roots there; her grandmother had immigrated to the Moose River area from Iceland, Upton said.
But before long, Upton’s parents took their family to Santa Monica, Calif., where a well-to-do uncle was working on the street plans of the new town as well as those of Laguna Beach, she said.
Upton attended elementary school with Marilyn Monroe, she recalled, while her mother worked in the cafeteria at 20th Century Fox studios.
“She knew all the stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Deborah Kerr and more,” Upton said.
Upton remembers her youth out west fondly, describing fields of geraniums and California poppies. Few people were around, and there was scant settlement because water was not yet available.
Her family moved again, however, this time just outside of Boston, where Upton would finish high school in 1939. During World War II, Upton recounted living in Marblehead, Mass., and hearing German submarine crewmen talking when surfaced in the bay.
Upton returned to California after the war, where she lived through the 1950s. She played guitar and worked different jobs, always in the presence of actors, writers and musicians. “I was a groupie,” she revealed.
She worked at a country club where she served the likes of Bing Crosby, Betty Grable and Desi Arnaz. “Gregory Peck taught me how to pour wine,” Upton said.
She recounted how she was asked out on a date by Frank Sinatra when she worked as a bartender, and “when he was between wives.” He was charming, she said, but she wasn’t a fan of his music; “I was an Elvis Presley person.”
But she soon met her fiancé, and by 1963 the two were married and had moved to Milwaukee, Wis., traveling across the Mojave Desert and by the Grand Canyon when the main thoroughfare was a dirt road, she said.
Upton was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 and given two years to live. She returned to Nova Scotia with her children, and prepared to die, she said. Soon after, a house her extended family owned in Penobscot became available, so she moved again. She managed to beat her illness, too, despite refusing chemotherapy.
“The power of positive thinking kept me going” she said.
Upton worked at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital for a while, nursing Brooklin author E.B. White among other patients. She and White got along well, and she became a caregiver for White at his home.
In Penobscot, Upton was involved in the PTA and picked and sold blueberries from her front porch, she said. She also helped to save the North Penobscot Methodist Church building (which was in disrepair and being vandalized after church functions ceased) and helped facilitate its sale and relocation to Saint Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill.
Upton has had cause to meet many people over the years and has made valuable friendships. “I know everybody,” she said.
While recent health issues have kept Upton largely bed-ridden, she hopes to overcome these challenges. She is staying busy, however, devouring books—at a rate of three per week, she said—and is currently finishing up an autobiography of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Looking back on her life, Upton takes the harder times in stride. “I was born on Labor Day and have worked all my life,” she jested. But she focuses most upon the high points, like raising seven kids, surviving cancer and experiencing adventures in life.
“I’ve had a good time,” she said.