Sarah Tupou Tina Marsters would sometimes joke about being the queen of the island she has been living on for nearly a century.
It could be because the oldest person on Palmerston Island shares her birthday with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
But Sarah is a queen in her own right. As his great-grandchild, she is the oldest living descendant of William Marsters – the founding father of the unique community of Palmerston.
This week, she turned 96 – a year closer to her dream of hitting the big 100.
Son Arthur Neale, who works at the Palmerston Island Administration, says they held a little celebration to mark the special day for her mother who is now bedridden and suffers from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
They couldn’t hold a big celebration of the Covid-19 restriction limiting gatherings to 10 people only.
“Yeah she would sometimes joke around saying she is the queen of Palmerston. She has a lot of respect from the people around us because of her age and the life she has lived,” says Arthur.
Sarah’s daughter Stella Neale said her mum always said that she was going to live to a 100 years and get a letter from the Queen of England.
“She’s quite delighted to be 96. She had a quiet day at home but received many phone calls which started at 7.30 in the morning, from Rarotonga and New Zealand- family and relatives calling as well as visits from family living in Palmerston.”
While Sarah spends the day quietly reading and resting. She was walking independently until two years ago but progressive osteoarthritis in her back now limits her mobility. Her back was hurt when she fell out of a coconut tree in her teens and although not permanently injured, it is the area that is affected.
Her favourite foods are fish, coconuts including uto, bananas and puraka and she also loves orange chocolate chip ice-cream and jelly.
Sarah’s special mayonnaise salad was a favourite amongst the family, says Stella.
Born on April 21, 1924, Sarah lived an extraordinary life full of moments and adventures.
Daughter Stella, in a memoir, writes “the making of lemonade from life’s lemons is what mum has done so expertly”.
She had learned to read at her grandmother’s knee before she had actually started school. Her reading lessons was reading the Bible with her grandmother Elizabeth, the daughter of William Marsters, the Englishman who had settled on Palmerston Island.”
Sarah’s love of reading has been the teacher and trainer in her life when she was forced to finish school at 14 because of a decision that the family head of Palmerston had made, requiring that children older than 14 would need to stay home and help with chores and making copra.
This broke her heart, she once told Stella.
Sarah then wanted to be a nurse and trained (secretly) in 1947 however her father disagreed and intervened and she was not able to complete the examination.
It was a huge disappointment for her, says Stella.
Sarah honoured the couple who brought her up as her parents believing them to be her mother and father.
At 17, she learned the truth of her parents and that her ‘mother’ was actually her aunt and that the grave that she would dress with flowers and keep clean and would go to find solace at, was the grave of her mother who had been killed in the cyclone of 1926.
“Mum was just two years old. Her memory of her mother had faded but the graveside had always beckoned her,” writes Stella.
Sarah left on the next ship that called to Palmerston to go find her father. She learned that he was still alive and living in Rarotonga and had been reminded of the man who had come to Palmerston on a ship when she was still young and who had asked her to take him to the grave she decorated with flowers.
The man was her father, Haua Ebera Aberahama.
In Rarotonga, Sarah found a man who was gentle and kind. His English was perfect and he worked on the ships as a stevedore.
One day she went with her cousin to the store. He told them what they were to say in Maori and practiced the sentence with them. The store was the AB Donald’s Trading Store.
“They were admonished that if spoken to in Maori and could not understand, they were on no account to say ‘Ae’ or ‘Yes’. Instead they were to repeat the phrase but if stuck, to speak English and make their request known.”
The advice went out the window when they entered and the assistant spoke to them in Maori. Her cousin said ‘yes’ and Sarah kicked her in the ankle and told her she wasn’t supposed to say that.
“Mum had by this time understood a little Maori and realised they were being teased. They were being asked if they were ‘hairy Palmerstonians’ (Pamati uruuru).”
Her mother replied to the young male assistant in English: “Not as hairy as you.”
Then a white man who was in the office behind the counter came out upon hearing the raucous laughter that ensued from the assistant, and asked what all the laughter was about.
The white man was Tom Neale; he would eventually be Stella and Arthur’s father.
He asked Sarah what it was that they wanted. “A pound of cabin bread biscuit” was the reply, and the first thing Sarah said to him.
“The year was 1942 and she was 18. It was an innocuous start to becoming acquainted and not the beginning of a romance by any means.
“When they eventually became a couple it was 1955 and he'd been working on various islands in the Cook Islands and had spent three years living alone on Suwarrow Island.”
It was the beginning of his eventual book, the acclaimed An Island To Oneself.
Sarah was married three times. Her last marriage was to Carl Teraia Marsters, who passed away in 2000.
She raised seven children (four boys and three girls) and has several grandchildren and great grandchildren, some of whom live in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and the Middle East.
Sarah retired back to Palmerston in 1996 but had always frequently returned to visit and spend time with the mother who had brought her up after she had left there in 1942.
Stella says the visits were in varying lengths of a few months to sometime being a year or more.
“So in reality she never really left Palmerston.”
In 1972 she moved to New Zealand to take her three youngest children to attend school – Arthur and Stella were at high school and youngest daughter Noni was in primary school.
“She had determined to go back home once they were independent and married.”
In 2014 and 2015 Sarah left the island for her last overseas trip to New Zealand, Australia and United Kingdom to see her families and friends.
Stella says her mum loved travelling and has been to France, England and Switzerland.
“She was 83 years old then. Also several times to Australia, Hawaii and America. A highlight was being able to meet her penpal after 20 years of writing to each other.
“Her last overseas travel was in 2016. She travelled to Australia in October 2015 to be at the birth of her third great grandchild.”
Sarah returned to Palmerston in 2016 and has been residing on the island since.
“The lemonade of mum’s life has taken her travelling, working in many areas developing her skills and talents and serving with dedication and faithfully,” Stella says.
Her mother is multilingual – fluent in English, Cook Islands Maori including Manihikiian, and Tahitiian. She also learned French in her 50s.
She was a superb seamstress and cook and a master at weaving rito. “One of the hats she wove is now at Te Papa museum and was part of a display of island creative weaving.”
Being able to tour Buckingham Palace and see the exhibition of the Queen’s wedding during her trip to London in 2007 was “a dream come true” for Sarah Marsters.
Some people go to London to visit the queen, according to the old nursery rhyme.
But Palmerston has its own queen.