PORTLAND – Rita Ward made her family promise never to reveal her age.

Though she was a modest woman who catered to her family’s every need and often persevered with limited resources, she was proud of her youthful appearance.

“She always looked a lot younger than she was,” said Nancy Castonia, her eldest daughter. “She’d come back and get me if I told people how old she was. I will respect her wishes even now that she’s gone.”

So, Rita Ward’s life story won’t include the age at which she died Saturday at a Portland hospital, or the date she was born in L’Islet, Quebec, Canada.

She came to this country in 1926, the second-youngest of 12 children born to Napoleon and Demerise Belanger. Her father was a blacksmith. The family settled in Westbrook, where she would live most of her life.

She married Aubrey Ward in 1934 and became a U.S. citizen in 1937. She and her husband had three children: Castonia, who lives in Cumberland; Patricia Pomerleau, who lives in Naples; and John Ward, who died several years ago.

She worked at the local A&P Supermarket and Sebago-Moc shoe factory for many years before retiring.

Through it all, her family was the focus of her love, which she expressed in many thoughtful and resourceful ways.

“It was because of her courage and determination that my brother, sister and I ever had a chance in this world.” Castonia said. “She called us her ‘blessings from God’ and she raised us, working long hours and constantly sacrificing the things she needed or wanted, so that she could provide what we needed.”

Mrs. Ward was an excellent cook who loved preparing warm, comforting food for her children, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her potato salad, lemon meringue pie and macaroni and cheese were so special, her children were spoiled for all others.

“No matter what, it was never as good as hers,” Castonia said.

She also was an amazing seamstress, making clothes for herself and her children on an old, pedal-operated Singer sewing machine — frilly dresses and coats for Easter, intricate costumes for Halloween, black velvet jumpers and white blouses for Christmas, and prom dresses when the girls got into high school.

“I still have one of the cowgirl costumes she made for us when I was about 10 and my sister was 8,” Castonia said. “We wore them all the time. I even made a holster for my toy gun out of leather scraps that she had. She started teaching me how to sew when I was 4 years old and it was one of the greatest joys of my life.”

Clever, frugal and creative, Mrs. Ward recycled long before it was popular. She reupholstered chairs rather than toss them out, transformed old woolen coats into braided rugs, and washed and reused bread bags, tin foil and glass jars.

“She never spent her hard-earned money on something she didn’t need,” her daughter said. “She had a clear picture of what was important and what was frivolous.”

What was important was her family, and they loved her for it. Though a good education wasn’t available to her when she was young, she scrimped and saved so her children could go to private schools, complete high school and go on to higher education. And she stayed involved in their lives until the end.

“Everything that I am is because of her,” Castonia said. “She has been my dearest friend all of my life. I called her every night to share my day and see how she was doing, even when she was at the South Portland Nursing Home. This is the first night that I won’t be calling her. I guess I’ll have to get used to that.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]