Mary Douglas had just finished ninth grade when her mother got ill.
With limited options, her father removed her from school so she could help care for her seven siblings, do household chores and take a job to augment the family’s income.
“I had to do it,” Douglas said. “It didn’t hurt me.”
That hardship was one of several she encountered before she became an adult. Yet as she approached her 100th birthday, she looked back with fondness on the years she spent growing up.
“(My childhood) was a happy one,” she said.
Douglas turns 100 today and will mark the milestone birthday at Brookdale Senior Living in Lewiston. The facility planned a party with a parade of cars that community members can join.
Those who want to take part can line up at 2:30 p.m. at North 40 Outfitters and drive to the parking lot of Brookdale Senior Living at 2975 Juniper Drive, where Douglas will be sitting in a tent outdoors with balloons.
Participants are invited to decorate their cars and honk their horns during the procession, said Candi Hanks, activity director at Brookdale Senior Living.
“The more noise the better,” Hanks said. “It brings a smile to everybody’s face.”
The event is one way Brookdale Senior Living will honor Douglas, a woman who managed to thrive even when circumstances outside her control created challenges.
Her family lived on a farm in Evansville, Pa., until she was 5 years old.
“We moved to Philadelphia because it was time for my brother (to start school),” Douglas said. “Where we lived, they only had a one-room schoolhouse.”
Her dad worked at the post office for four years and purchased what Douglas described as a “nice” home with three bedrooms, one for him and his wife, another for the family’s boys and the third for the girls.
The modest prosperity the family achieved evaporated when the Depression started and her dad lost his job. To feed the family, he sold apples and oranges on street corners.
He got his job back when the economy recovered, but the family never fully rebounded from the setback. They lost the home they owned and lived in a series of rentals.
“I had to change schools, and I went to school with more Black children,” she said. “We all got along very nice.”
A number of years later, her world reached a crossroads again when she left school, three years shy of getting her high school diploma. She was just a teenager, but understood what was at stake.
She lost the opportunity to take typing and other courses that could have given her more skills in the workplace.
The job she landed at a carpet factory involved operating a machine that put yarn onto smaller spools before it went onto weaving machines. The shifts ran from 3-11:30 p.m.
She traveled to her job, which was in another town, by bus with her brother and sister-in-law, who also were employed at the plant. When her brother and sister-in-law quit, she did too.
“My parents didn’t want me out that late at night,” Douglas said.
Her next job was managing a luncheonette at a pharmacy, where she ordered the ingredients for the soups and sandwiches on the menu and served the customers.
One night when she returned from work, her family was having a birthday party for one of her brothers, who brought three sailors to the gathering. Douglas noticed one she thought was handsome.
“He hung around me all evening at the party,” she said. “He decided he wanted to come back and see me again, so he did.”
They married before World War II ended. She continued to live with her family, feeling lucky he visited every week or two when he was on leave from patrolling the harbor around New York City.
“The (soldiers) who were overseas, the wives never saw them,” Douglas said.
After the war, they settled in his home state of Oklahoma, where he was a bookbinder and she was a stay-at-home mom, raising their two boys.
“I liked it,” she said. “It was nice. It was nice to be with the children all day long.”
Later, she followed him to the Washington, D.C., area, where he worked at a printing office in the federal government.
His career was cut short when he suffered a heart attack so severe he was hospitalized for a month. His doctor told him he could work half days after he recovered, but his employer wouldn’t go along with that, Douglas said.
He died in 1977 at the age of 63. Douglas said she chose not to remarry because she loved him so much.
To earn a living, she found a job as a seamstress at an upscale boutique where wealthy women shopped, drawing on skills she developed sewing her own clothing.
“Some of the things (they bought) weren’t big enough,” she said. “You’d have to make it bigger.”
In retirement, Douglas lived in the same towns as her oldest son, Joseph Douglas, who ended his career as the chief information officer and director of information and media technology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
He retired to Clarkston in 2004, where he operates a business, Black Dog Tackle and Custom Rods.
Douglas had her own apartment until about four years ago. At Brookdale, she likes chatting with her friends and playing bingo, but measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus have made it difficult to do those things.
Any time she is with other residents, she has to follow rules such as being 6 feet apart. That makes it hard to have conversations, she said, especially because some of the residents have difficulty with their sight and hearing. When family members visit, they sit outside.
“I spend a lot of time right here in my room,” she said.
Williams may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2261.
Those who want to join the car parade today for Mary Douglas’ 100th birthday are asked to call Brookdale Senior Living at (208) 746-8676, so the facility has an estimate of the number of individuals who will be participating.