In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt was President, Albert Einstein formulated E=mc2, Oklahoma became the 46th state, Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the country’s first transatlantic radio transmission occurred, bubonic plague broke out in San Francisco, a loaf of bread cost five cents, and Mary Lynch Fisher was born.
And this past Monday, her gray hair coiffed, her cheeks flushed pink, and sporting touches of makeup, Ms. Fisher went to a surprise party. Most likely the Island’s oldest resident, she celebrated her 103rd birthday with family, friends, some of her former fourth grade students, and the staff and residents of Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center where she’s lived since 1999.
With Betsy Burmeister, director of recreation, as the enthusiastic mistress of ceremonies, more than 30 gathered in the sunshine in Windemere’s garden — brimmed hats, cups of sweet punch, and smiles all round — waiting for Ms. Fisher to make her entrance. When she did, they greeted her with applause and a chorus of “Happy Birthday” that left her momentarily who-me startled — but her expression quickly settled into a beaming smile that lingered for the cards, flowers, and good wishes gingerly presented to her, one-by-one.
There are many much younger than Ms. Fisher, who settle into being used-to-be people, defining themselves by former lives and past pursuits. Not Mary Fisher. She first learned to drive when she was in her 70s, and should you mention a reason to defer doing something or going somewhere — “It’s cold out,” or “You look tired” — she’ll quote one of her favorite expressions: “That never stopped me before.”
Although less than five-feet tall, and despite a decline in responses and memory during the past six months, she remains a large presence grounded in the moment — a woman of grace.
Until recently, she was never without her knitting, making scarves for friends and for sale at the hospital gift shop. She still keeps her weekly hair appointment, always has her nails polished a bright shade of red, plays a regular game of Bingo, never complains, and being a devout Catholic, never misses observing Mass.
Nancy Burleson, responsible for the care in Wildflower Court at Windemere, remembers: “We once had chicken soup on a Friday, and when she realized there was chicken in it, she went to confession for eating it.”
Ms. Burleson would bring Ms. Fisher home with her for Thanksgiving, drive her around to see the Christmas lights, and take her and her friend, the late Ruth Donahue, out for ice cream. “She is very, very friendly to everybody,” she says. “Everybody knows Mary.”
Ms. Fisher punctuates the stories of her past with laughter: snippets about growing up in Lowell and having to take care of her two sisters and five brothers, saying nightly prayers in the room the family used as a chapel, and coming to the Vineyard (“I didn’t know where in the world I’d be coming. I never heard of the Vineyard”), where for 40 years from 1929 to 1972, she taught fourth grade at the Edgartown School.
“She was a giant when I was in fourth grade,” says her former student John Stevens, principal of Edgartown School. “You didn’t mess around in her class. She had a rapport with kids. You knew she meant it.”
He describes Ms. Fisher as “a sharp dresser, hair always immaculate,” and says, “She was a strict, traditional teacher — reading groups, math, all by the book… an exemplary teacher by today’s standards. A model teacher.”
Ms. Fisher married Island native Ellsworth Fisher, remembered for his good nature, who worked as the night operator for the phone company. “He worked nights and I worked days,” she says, and laughing, adds another of her signature quips, “That’s why we didn’t get a divorce.”
LPN Mary Hillman, a nurse on Unit 3 where Ms. Fisher lives, smiles when she talks about her: “What I love about Mary is that she has the greatest sense of humor. I love to kid with her. She has the greatest giggle. She’s a delight.” She notes, “She loves watching sports at night… She’ll watch one of the Vineyard stations to watch the kids playing.”
Margaret Serpa recounts her great aunt living with the extended family in the Fisher House in Edgartown, remembering when she used to go to Dr. Mills’s mother’s ladies afternoon cocktail parties. “We’d say, ‘Tell us, Aunt Mary, what you used to do when you went to Ms. Mills,’ because she would always pour her drink into a plant.
“Windemere’s been very good for Mary,” Ms. Serpa says. And looking around the happy scene in the garden this past Monday, seems to prove the point.