Mary’s memories Quick-witted 90-year-old has stories to tell

Published 12:01 am Sunday, June 27, 2010

She says that at 90, “I’m just loafing around,” but she was quick to tell a funeral home director recently, “I’m just visiting.”

Mary Clark is a little lady with a quick mind, a keen sense of humor and a ready laugh. She has called Vicksburg home for 74 years, for it was in 1936 that she came here from Cairo, Ill., with her foster parents, an uncle and aunt. She was born in Russellville, Ky. Her mother died when Mary was a child, and she and her sister and brother went to live with relatives. Her uncle was transferred to Vicksburg and worked at Waterways Experiment Station.

Mary entered the 10th grade at Carr Central, worked at a dime store on Washington Street for $9 a week, and met Ed Clark on a double date. They married in July 1940 in Monroe, La., making the round trip on a train “because not many young people back then had cars.”

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Life might have been pretty normal if it hadn’t been for the military situation. Ed’s National Guard unit was mobilized and he was sent to Florida, but was discharged because of a dependency. Soon war came along, and he was called into active service and sent to London to help upgrade airfields. He developed pleurisy, a lung infection, so he was sent to a base in Tacoma, Wash., where the damp weather aggravated his illness. He was then sent to Yermo Air Base in the desert at Daggett, Calif.

In the meantime, Ed and Mary had their first child, Lou. Mary and the baby were living in Hopkinsville, Ky., with an aunt when she decided to join Ed in California.

Travel was a hassle then, too, for the train was so crowded that she had to sit on the suitcase in the aisle, holding the baby, all the way to Chicago. There she changed trains, and with a long wait in line to get to the ticket window, Mary put the suitcase on its side, placed the 3-year-old Lou (who was asleep) on it, and as the line inched forward she gently shoved the makeshift bed along with her foot. She was lucky — this time she got a berth. The porter referred to Daggett as a “god-forsaken place” and could hardly believe Mary was getting off there.

Of course, Ed was waiting, and Mary remembers it as a fun time. They would explore the desert looking for rocks.

Back in Vicksburg after the war, Ed worked for Cappaert Manufacturing, wiring house trailers, a trade “he picked up here and there.” In the 1950s, Ed and Pearson Gay started Ace Electric Co. Also, another daughter, Mary K., was born in 1950.

Life changed drastically for Ed and Mary in 1968 when someone gave him an antique ballast bottle, the type with a rounded bottom that was filled with mineral water or maybe sand and used in the hold of a ship.

“That’s what started it all,” Mary said.

He had a new hobby, digging for old bottles. Mary went with him only one time and decided, “That’s not for me. I have other things to do. He could stay for hours, digging and looking and picking and so forth.”

Her role was cleaning them. She had a big, old laundry tub in the backyard that she would fill with soapy water and put the bottles in to soak, then try to clean them with brushes. If that didn’t work, muriatic acid did.

Mary liked their shapes and colors and loved displaying them, putting them “just anywhere to suit my fancy.”

Ed was a collector, not a dealer, but sometimes he’d sell a bottle. Scarcity is what makes them valuable, Mary said, “and sometimes we bought more than we dug just to fill out a collection.” Through hours of study, Ed became an authority in bottle collecting. He and Mary were members of bottle clubs and attended the national show in St. Louis. She “entered a few times and won sometimes, with Ed’s help.”

It wasn’t just bottles that intrigued Ed, and Mary said “he liked all things old. I didn’t at first, before meeting him, but it was a matter of getting along,” kind of like when they were dating and “he’d borrow things and I’d have a tough time getting them back — but I guess I overlooked that.”

During the raising of the Ironclad Cairo in 1964-65, he helped recover artifacts while Mary sat on the bank and watched, but at night they joined others in cleaning the collection. Ed was also an officer in the historical society.

His working arrangement with Pearson was perfect for accommodating his hobby, and Mary remembers that when someone asked Pearson, “How is Ed?” and he replied, “Oh, he’s all right — just been on a bottle kick.” And the person said, “Oh, I didn’t know he drank!” to which Pearson replied, “No, he just digs for bottles.”

Though Mary learned to love the bottle collecting, she had her own interests. She was an avid bowler and a member of the Porters Chapel Home Demonstration Club. She was president of the Evergreen Garden Club, and though she claims, “I’m not too much of a gardener,” she won several blue ribbons. When she saw all the paperwork that came with being elected treasurer of the Council of Garden Clubs, she got a terrible headache and thought she had gotten into something that she couldn’t handle. But Vivian Faulk simply advised, “Mary, just take two aspirins.”

Her gardening is a bit more practical now, perhaps, for behind the house she has a little garden plot with eight plants — “three cantaloupes, three tomatoes and two okra — that’s not eight, is it?”

She says she “used to like to cook,” and for more than 25 years was involved with preparing the annual turkey dinners at Crawford Street United Methodist Church and spent a lot of time in the kitchen on other church projects. But, now, she says, “I just sell tickets.” She works with a team for The Salvation Army that provides meals for the needy and homeless at least once a month, a project that began with 60 people and is now up to 80 “and it will probably go higher.” The others in the group gave her the job of preparing the dessert, she said, because, “I think they were looking at my age, so I have it easy.”

At home, she cooks only a few times a week because “I like leftovers. I like my own cooking,” but when she recently checked her refrigerator and found nothing but apple salad, she decided it was time to go out and eat.

Mary goes to the fitness center several times a week — or maybe fewer — and does her own housework and some yard work, and she’s a member of a church group that “checks on the sick and the old folks.”

In 2005, Mary and Ed celebrated their 65th anniversary, and the next year he passed away. Her daughters, she said, “wanted me to go here and there and so forth, and I said no, this is where I’m comfortable. I call my comfort zone.”

And though she’s usually busy, she calls this her loafing time, so, “Sometimes I just do nothing.”

Her daughters like bottles, but not like I do.” She’s beyond digging — “I can hardly dig a hole for a plant” — but she still loves to decorate with them.

The daughters were here in January and lamented they couldn’t be in town for their mother’s 90th birthday in February, but she said, “Your mom will do something.”

And she did. She sent out invitations to a lunch at the country club, “A party given by me, for me. I had a great time. Thirty-eight people came.”

Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and the spouses are coming in July. That’s a lot of people.

Sounds like a good reason for another party.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.