By BETHANY ENGLISH
She clutched a cane in one hand, and except for a slight hop, her gait was lively as she walked through the room and took a seat. Her china-blue eyes stared boldly from behind thick glasses as she began her story.
“I’ve never really wanted a lot of material things, and I’ve never had a lot of material things,” said Mary, who didn’t want to use her last name for this story.
Born in 1927, the 84-year-old remembered growing up during the Great Depression and walking 2 miles with her father to buy milk. Now, decades later, she still has to walk to find what she needs.
Every Tuesday, she leaves her small apartment in Alliance Towers, a government subsidized apartment complex for the elderly, and crosses the street to the Alliance Neighborhood Center for the free evening meal offered there.
“She comes over and visits with us,” said Sandra Loy, director of the Alliance Neighborhood Center. “I talk with her on nice sunny days outside.”
Loy said Mary also stops by occasionally to pick up some free bread that they offer or to pick up something from the clothes closet.
Mary relies on this free food just as she relies on the lunches provided by the YWCA Monday through Thursday for the residents of Alliance Towers.
When she doesn’t have the free meals, Mary cooks what she can. She likes to buy sausage, seasoned tomatoes, plain yogurt, eggs and frozen veggies. She tends to make soups, such as zucchini or other vegetable soup, and then use the leftovers to make some type of chili.
“I thought I could live off of my Social Security. And then, I didn’t realize the last years that I worked, I only worked four to six hours a day … Then, when I found out how much money I was going to get on Social Security I was a bit shocked,” she said.
Each month, Mary gets $647 from Social Security, an income she earned from years working office jobs, brief teaching stints and organizing free meals for seniors and scheduling appointments for Well Child Center (WIC) through Community Action, a non-profit in Sebring.
Bills come in each month, too. Her medical insurance from Medicare costs $135 and her Medicare prescription plan costs another $32. From the $400 left, she pays $80 for her cable and $137 in rent, which is determined based on her income.
That leaves her with $263 for groceries, toiletries, clothes or anything else she might need throughout the month.
“If I want to splurge on something for myself, I buy shrimp.”
Her other little luxuries are the season tickets she buys each year to The Carnation Players, a theater group, and The Alliance Community Concert, each of which costs about $40. The $80 she spends for her expanded cable package with Time Warner Cable is another of her comforts.
At less than $8,000 a year, Mary is well below the 2011 poverty threshold of $10,890 for single-person households in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, she’s just one of the 17.8 percent of Alliance residents living in poverty.
Forty-some years ago, Mary had plenty of money saved from working for a trip she planned to take to Europe. Instead of venturing across the sea, she chose to explore higher education by going to college.
“I liked going to college,” she said. “I could have been a permanent college student.”
However, despite getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree in elementary education from Youngstown State University, Mary’s life was sometimes a struggle.
After she graduated at age 40 with her bachelor’s degree, she worked one year teaching first grade and two years teaching Head Start in Sebring. Then, she decided to obtain a master’s degree, but discovered that the extra education didn’t mean extra job opportunities.
“I priced myself out of teaching when I got the master’s,” Mary said. “The schools didn’t have the money, and they didn’t want somebody with a master’s.”
So, she did some volunteering with different organizations, including a resale shop that used the revenue to operate a food pantry. Her last 10 years of work were through the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which helps seniors find part-time, paid work.
In all those years, she never married. She never had children. But, she wanted them. Mary said her nieces and nephews helped fill up the space, but they still were never her own children.
For years, a neighbor’s son was like a grandson to Mary. She glowed as she spoke of him, now a senior in high school, emphasizing his natural artistic talents.
Although space is limited in her apartment, one of her walls is still a gallery of that boy’s artwork next to a chart marking his growth with school pictures. She keeps a folder of his drawings in her dresser’s bottom drawer. His number is the only one listed on her important numbers chart
But recently, she had a disagreement with the boy’s mother, and she hasn’t spoken to him since. She even missed his 18th birthday party. Every night, Mary thinks about calling him, but hasn’t yet.
Pennie Dowdy, 62, her neighbor and friend of 10 years, said Mary stops by every single day, sometimes even two or three times, for a cup of coffee and a visit.
The two met years ago when they went to a class about cleaning with green products at the Alliance Neighborhood Center where Dowdy’s daughter, Kim, taught.
Dowdy recently moved into Alliance Towers. Living right next door to each other makes it convenient for Mary to stop by and chat with Dowdy, who can’t get around as easily in her wheelchair.
“I think our friendship helped both of us,” Dowdy said.
Mary was the only person Dowdy knew in the building, and Dowdy is always willing to keep her friend company, chatting about their shared passion for crafting.
Dowdy went on to talk about how active Mary is, walking all over town with her little purple backpack and cane. Dowdy said Mary even started volunteering to help those at A Place for Mom, an Alzheimer’s care center in Alliance, by doing crafts.
Although she’s motivated, even Mary has her bad days when the weather and her lack of visitors weighs heavily on her and disrupts her mood.
“Sometimes I think she’s depressed. She doesn’t do well on days it’s not sunny,” Dowdy said.
It’s been about 12 years since Mary stopped working, and she’s starting to feel age creeping up on her in various ways from her cataracts to a damaged rotator cuff in her left shoulder.
“I’m tired, and I don’t feel good,” she said, brushing one of her thin hands against the other resting on her leg. Still, she counts herself as fortunate compared to other seniors.
“I’m lucky. I only have to take blood pressure medicine,” she said.
Mary’s thin, bird-like frame was outlined against the glass doors by the soft glow that filled her apartment’s lobby. Her straight, snow-white hair was like corn silk as it swept her narrow shoulders.
To a passer-by who has never heard the soft-spoken story of her life, the woman in the rose-patterned shirt might be anyone’s grandmother – instead of no one’s.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaboration between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).