Monday, July 7, 2008

Interview with 105-Year-Old Mary Sims Elliott

Conversations with a Centenarian
by Judy Purdy

It's hard to imagine a lifetime that spans the invention of the automobile to the advent of the electronic superhighway. During her 105 years, though, Mary Sims Elliott has seen everything from the invention of hot dogs, fortune cookies and ice cream cones to the demise of the Boxer revolution, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.

What's it like to begin a journey in the Gay Nineties and now be heading toward the 21st century? What lifelong lessons would Mrs. Elliott, one of the first participants in the Georgia Centenarian Study, pass along to others?

In addressing the Georgia legislature, which honored her last February during Senior Citizens Week, she emphasized that "it's important to love all people of all sizes, shapes and colors. That's what really matters."

The following excerpts are taken from conversations with Mrs. Elliott that span the past year.

"In September 1894, 101 years ago this fall, I entered kindergarten at Kent Place School for Girls in Summit, N.J. It was the same year the school opened, and my father was one of its founders. Summit was a very safe place for any child to go anywhere in town. Mother taught us to stop at the corner and look both ways to see that no horses or carriages were coming.

"We used to play wonderful outdoor games: cops and robbers, hide and seek, yards off. I also spent lots of time with my dear grandfather, a wonderful, old man and a good companion for a tot. He had eyes like the sky and the purest heart. He was a Scotch-Presbyterian and taught me the favorite old hymns.

"Sprinkle wagons were frequently seen on the streets in summer. They had sprayers, and the wagons would go along the roads and lay down the dust. Then there was the iceman's wagon. You'd put a sign in your kitchen window [with] how many pounds of ice you wanted. He would come and with great big tongs put ice in our ice box. The honey vendor would walk through the streets calling, honey, honey, clover honey.' He would have on his head a round pan with a big oval basin full of honey. He would come to your kitchen, put his big pan on top of your washtub and dish out the honey.

"We were brought up for courtesy in all things -- for people who work for and with us. My father, who was vice president, secretary and treasurer of the New York, Ontario & Western Railroad, was known as the most courteous man in town. Courtesy is very valuable, and I taught my children to look people in the eye and be open and friendly.

"Music has always meant so much to me. My mother was an accomplished pianist. She used to play for the Ladies Fortnightly Club -- which became the Federated Women's Clubs in the new century. She would often play for the family in the evenings. We children would go up to bed and call downstairs for Mama to play so-and-so from Chopin.

"Mother taught me to play simple hymns till I was old enough to learn others. By 1898 or 99, I was playing by ear some of the first ragtime. In 1901, we went to our [summer] cottage in the Catskills for the first time. The little, white Baptist church there had an itinerant minister, and I said Mother, they haven't anybody to play the little bellows organ for services. Can I play for them?' and Mother said, Well certainly, dear.' So I started playing those jiggy little country hymns in the country church that year, and every year till I was 24 and got married.

"When I was 86, my old piano had worn out, so I bought another one. I was at the top of my performance. In 1979, though, I sold it because my dear daughter needed money to have her house painted, and that was the only way I could get it. But I can still harmonize mentally. (With this, she smiles and tilts her head back, closes her eye and fans out her fingers as if playing an imaginary piano.) My hands were very flexible. I used to be able to reach one over an octave, but now I can only span one octave. I played the organ for my grandson's wedding when I was 96, and at 97 I was a substitute organist at the Frederica Church on St. Simon's Island. I was too old to drive, but I had friends who took me.

"My sister Dorothy and I took a ship, the Koening Albrecht, to Europe for the summer in 1905 with a chaperon. I was 15 and Dorothy was 18, and we took the longest sea trip my father could find to rest Dorothy after her [graduation] exams."

[Editor's note: Mrs. Elliott still remembers her French. When Leonard Poon, who directs the UGA centenarian study, traveled to France to work with other centenarian researchers, he invited Mrs. Elliott to write a letter to Madame Jeanne Calment, who at 120 is the oldest documented person in the world. Without assistance, Mrs. Elliott composed her letter in French. When asked how she had remembered French after so many years, she replied, "My dear, I learned it very well as a child."]

"I believe in proper development in mind, body and soul. My parents read to us about Greek myths and Scandinavian legends. In today's society we need to teach mothers and children guiding principles to live by. We need to turn things around; there needs to be a return to the teachings of the Bible.

"Generation after generation of my family has worked on the affairs of the church. When I was 95, I got some friends about 20 years younger than I to help me organize a local chapter of the prayer book society at my church. When I can't work any more, God will know.

"I feel fine except that I don't hear very well and I don't see very well, and at this age it's rather hampering. I am so old I better be glad with what I have. When I get frustrated I pray it off and I laugh it off. If you can't laugh at things, you're in a sad state. I had a cataract operation four years ago and it was a slow recuperative period but afterwards I had a new lease on life because [I am] seeing colors again.

"As a child I learned little sayings that have stayed with me all my life: Good, better, best; never let it rest till your good is better and your better, best. Another is: Do your best in all you do and your best will come back to you. No matter how awful things get sometimes, there's a good side. I have a life filled with love because I have always tried to love others. It's been a wonderful saga, a wonderful life. Just marvelous."

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I just so happen to live near where she grew up (Summit, NJ). If Summit back then was anything like it is now, she very likely came from a relatively wealthy family, so she may have benefited from higher living standards.

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