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Music has kept 93-year-old former P.E.I. woman going through hard times

Rita Conway, left, with niece Corinne Duffy.
Rita Conway, left, with niece Corinne Duffy. - Contributed

At 93, Rita Conway still plays the fiddle a couple times a week.

“It’s good for the fingers,” the former Islander said. “The fingers and the arm don’t play like they used to … I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.”

Conway has survived two husbands, raised eight children, lives with asthma and a heart condition, but continues to live independently in her Saint John, N.B. apartment.

“She might be old, but she’s so young at heart,” said Corinne Duffy, Conway’s niece and god-daughter. 

Whenever Conway visits the Island, or when relatives visit her, there is always music. Conway used to play with a group on Sunday nights, until her arthritis got to be too much. But she still goes out to see shows with friends. At her 90th birthday celebration in Wellington, P.E.I., Conway even took centre stage for a tune or two.

Veteran New Brunswick fiddler Ivan Hicks calls music “the greatest communicator”.

“It makes people happy, it brings people together, it’s a great social thing,” said Hicks. 

Music has kept Conway connected to family and her community.

“Having her to this day is pretty neat,” said Duffy. “You love to see her coming. She can’t come often enough." 

To Duffy, the Acadian culture is one of family. When Duffy was born, Conway went to stay and help the growing family. Conway’s brother, Arcade (Archie) was Duffy’s father. 

“Family and music and helping out each other. It’s what you grew up with, they were always there. Mother and father were always there,” remembers Duffy. “I wouldn’t trade those days growing up in the country in Abram-Village. It was wonderful.”

Rita Conway with her children. Back row: Erma Arsenault, left, Linda Arsenault and Carol Conway. Front: Edmund Arsenault, left, Rita Conway, Kevin Conway, Aletha Arsenault and Gerald Arsenault.
Rita Conway, centre, enjoys a visit with all of her children. In the back row are Erma Arsenault, left, Linda Arsenault and Carol Conway. In the front are Edmund Arsenault, left, Rita Conway, Kevin Conway, Aletha Arsenault and Gerald Arsenault.

Conway grew up the youngest of Joseph (known as ‘Joe-Bibienne’) and Julie-Anne Arsenault’s 16 children on a farm in Abram-Village. 

As a girl on the farm, Conway would work at all the chores. She milked the cows and even drove the horses. 

“I was the youngest, I had to help when the others left.”

Conway started playing the fiddle when she was eight, learning all her tunes by listening to her father. 

Marie Anne Arsenault, one of Conway’s nieces, remembers Conway playing with her sisters Zellie Anne and Delphine. 

Arsenault’s father would tell her how they learned to play the fiddle from Joe-Bibienne.

“A fiddle was precious in those days. When they were about five, he would allow them to pick up the violin,” said Arsenault. 

The family would play together for fun as well as at community dances and events. 

“We had to do something on the farm. With 16 children, you had to do something for entertainment.”

- Rita Conway

“We had to do something on the farm. With 16 children, you had to do something for entertainment,” said Conway. 

She can remember travelling with her family by horse and sleigh from their home in Abram-Village to Richmond, a distance of eight miles, to play at a party. They were sitting low in a big box sleigh, draped in shawls and blankets with a few warmed bricks at their feet to stay warm. 

“Maybe we got each $5,” she said. “We didn’t get much money in those days, but it was fun.”

Conway’s first husband, Edmund Arsenault, was an Islander. They moved to Upham, N.B. when he got work at the mill there. In their 10 years together, they had six children, George, Gerald, Linda, Erma, Aletha and Edmund. Suddenly, on a vacation home to P.E.I., Arsenault died of a heart attack.

Alone at 30 to parent her six children, Conway moved back home to the Island. They lived for several years on just $105 each month. 

“It was pretty hard picking,” she said.

Then she met and married New Brunswicker Leo Conway. They moved to Saint John and had two more children, Kevin and Carol. 

Leo died young as well, in 1978 at the age of 46. 

“I’m not lucky with husbands. I’m staying an old maid,” said Conway. “I kept going. I guess that’s what’s kept me going - music. I love music.”

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