Life Lessons from Our Cofounders’ Great-Grandmother

Words by Sara Panton

  • Left to right: vitruvi cofounder Sara Panton with her grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother.

    Left to right: vitruvi cofounder Sara Panton with her grandmother, great-grandmother, and mother.

  • Sara Panton (middle) with her great-grandmother and grandmother.

    Sara Panton (middle) with her great-grandmother and grandmother.

  • Sara Panton’s great-grandmother and mother.

    Sara Panton’s great-grandmother and mother.

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In my eyes, my and Sean’s great-grandmother has never aged. Even in my earliest memories, she has always had layers of lines and wrinkles on her face. While holding her hand, I would mentally connect the dots of its sunspots. I was constantly in awe of her perfectly permed white hair that always had just the slightest blue hue.

Her name is Sarah Emily Williams; she was born 1917, at the end of the First World War, and when the Second World War was just around the corner. She has seen televisions, the internet, smartphones, and Facebook (a platform on which she is an active member) be invented. And now she has lived through two pandemics (the first being 1918’s Spanish flu). She worked for many years Bell Canada, raised a family, ran a household, and was always strong-willed, doing both gendered roles inside and outside the house—which certainly wasn’t the norm back then. She has always been independent, and has gone about life with a wicked sense of humor and a “get it done” energy.

To say my great-grandmother is resilient is the understatement of the century (quite literally). She lived independently until the age of 99; she is currently 103 and resides in an assisted living home in Nova Scotia. I am honored to be named after this woman. Her mixture of grit and grace is something I aspire to. Her love of family and hard work have been the mainstay of her life; she has been known to get on a plane at a moment’s notice for the opportunity to hold one of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren living across Canada. I am her first great-grandchild, and I am so lucky to have many memories of beach days with her in Nova Scotia, driving a tractor (after the boys got a turn, much to my dismay) and helping her make her famous scones (which I’ve never been able to recreate with the same magic as her).


My mom Sue—her granddaughter—speaks on the phone with her regularly. In honor of Mother’s Day, we recorded one of their recent conversations (with her permission) and asked for some life lessons. She is a very unsentimental 103-year-old woman; I think time lets you see what is important, and really edits out the noise.

What is your skincare routine? Do you have any skincare or beauty secrets to share?

I never wore too much makeup. No time for it. Too busy.

Sometimes I’ll use a little lipstick and some moisturizer. I don’t use a certain kind, just whatever I pick up. [She finds both on her dresser: Milani lipstick and L’Oreal moisturizer]

When you were younger, was exercise a big deal? Did you go to exercise classes?

No, I was too busy working.

What do you think of the focus on beauty and exercise now?

Oh, I don’t know. I never did think too much about it.

You are 103, so you are super wise. What would be some lessons that you would like to tell people?

Hmmmm. Lead a good life.

How do you do that?

Be kind, loving, and attentive.

What are your top healthy habits?

I was at work. I don’t know. I guess everyday living, you know. I was busy raising my family.

Okay, later on in your fifties, what did you do for your health?

To tell the truth, I don’t know. I never worked on it. I did go for walks, but does that make you healthy?

Of course it does!

I did walk every day. Porridge for breakfast, bran muffins. Not too many sweets.

What about rum?

I never drank it when I was young raising my family. But my first husband and I would have a little taste of rum in the evenings. He wasn’t a drinker either, but we’d have a little bit.

What are your favorite scents?

Fresh bread.

What about flowers?

Roses. I like sweet peas, too, but they’re kind of heavy.

What about the smell of an orange?

Oh yes, I’ve got one right here. Oh, and I love the smell of a baby.

What did you love about little Sara [great-granddaughter and cofounder of vitruvi]?

I was so proud to have her named for me.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I think that I was half man and half woman. [laughs]

Okay, alright, can you tell me a little more about that?

I don’t know—make hay, milk cows, drive horses.

Oh, I see—you feel that you were as strong as a man.

That’s right.

But then you also raised the babies and did all the cooking.


So do you mean being a woman means being both strong and gentle?

Well, yes.

How old were you when you started dating?

I think I must have been 17.

Did you go on dates to the movies? Wait—were there movies?

Oh, we would go on a hay ride or something. Those were many years ago. [laughs]

Were there cars?

We’d use a team of horses.

Is there anything you can think of that you would like to tell women who are younger than you?

[Thinks for a long time] Fight for your rights.

What kind of rights?

Stand up for yourself. And for others.

You’re a wise lady.

Oh, that makes me laugh.

Why does it make you laugh?

I don’t know, I’m just an ordinary person. What are you doing with this?

I’m sending this interview to Sara’s editor at vitruvi. You’ll be famous.

I’ll be famous? Well, count the stars, I’ll be the third one over.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.