Mary Ratcliffe: 100 years old and still painting away

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BRATTLEBORO — In January Mary Ratcliffe — artist, poet, and retired nurse — celebrated her 100th birthday at a reception organized by her daughters, Laura and Martha. In a recent interview in her home, she said that she never expected to reach the century mark.

"Heck no!" she said. "When my youngest son hit 50, I began to think about getting old. Then as he got older, I moved it up ... and somewhere between 85 and 90 I decided that 100 would be a good round number. I wanted to live this long because nobody else on both sides of the family did — I'm the first one. I had a couple of aunts who lived to their late 90s, and my grandfather was 93, so I figured if I made it that long, maybe I had a chance to get to 100. Now I'm 100 and two months — almost three."

She was born in Burnville, Pa., a very small town northwest of Reading.

"There were 300 people in the town until Jan. 8 at 8:30 in the morning, and then it had 301," she recalled. "We lived in different houses, either in Burnville or the vicinity; from the time I was 6 until I was 13, we lived on a farm and we walked a mile and a quarter to school. When it snowed my father had what he called a drag, and he went behind the horses to clear a path. But when there was a crust, I was so little and skinny I could walk on the crust. I laughed at my brother and sister because they were plodding along."

When her father, a veterinarian, got a job with the state to do tuberculosis testing, the family moved to West Chester, where she went to high school. She was determined to be a nurse, but had to put her plans on hold.

"When I graduated from high school, I was only 17 and you had to be 18," she explained. "In the meantime there was an election and my father lost his job, so we moved to Middletown, Del. I went to the high school there and took a refresher course in biology and also typing and shorthand. I thought I'd take my notes in shorthand and type them, but the only hitch was I didn't have a typewriter."

Seated in the front row in one class, she took lecture notes in shorthand, and the teacher, looking down from her platform, thought she was scribbling.

"She asked, 'Miss D, what are you doing?'" Ratcliffe remembered. "I told her I was taking notes, and she said, 'Show me.' I know darned well she didn't understand it — but fortunately, if there was a new or unfamiliar word, I wrote it above the shorthand, so I guess she figured out that I was really using shorthand.

"I went to school for three years at the Reading Hospital School of Nursing," she continued, "and then I went back home and worked in a doctor's office as his office nurse. There were salesmen for pharmaceutical companies, and one day two of them came in, and one of them gave me a sample of a new hand lotion they were working on.

I had had trouble with my hands, so I used it and it worked. Six weeks later only one man came in, and he put down his sample case and I said, 'I really liked that hand lotion you gave me — do you have any more?' He said, 'I didn't give you any hand lotion.' He turned out to be my husband."

World War II broke out before they married, and Ratcliffe joined the Navy Nurse Corps; her husband was a Navy pilot. She resigned after two years.

"The reason I resigned was that I wanted to get married and they didn't want any married nurses," she explained. "So then for the next 30 years I raised a family."

She returned to nursing when her youngest son was in high school.

"I worked through an agency and did private duty," she said. "I was the night nurse for terminal cancer patients and a newborn nursery — the beginning and the end of life. And as far as I'm concerned, terminal cancer patients are a breed apart: they're the same, but they're different. There's something about those patients that just drew me to them."

She retired from nursing to be able to travel when her husband's squadron began organizing reunions around the country.

"Every year it was a different place in the United States," she recalled. "At that time we lived in St. Louis, so if it was California, we'd go up to Wisconsin, over to the coast, and then come back through the South. And somewhere along the way I had relatives, so we'd stop and visit them."

Ratcliffe began writing poetry when a friend lost her husband in a freak accident and then was diagnosed with cancer.

"Over the years I wrote doggerel," she said. "I wrote her a poem and it was the Fourth of July, and I put in rockets and all, but I could not draw a waving flag, and I was mad. Later I learned that there was a drawing class at the local school; that's how it all started, and the next year they offered painting, and much to my surprise I found out I could paint."

In her paintings, flowers and landscapes are common themes; these days she focuses on poetry.

"I either paint or write crazy poems, but I can't do both at the same time," she said.

She has a simple explanation for reaching 100 in good health: good nutrition and exercise.

"Eat right — and that means less fast food — and exercise," she said. "I exercise every day. I have a set of exercises for different days, because if you do the same exercise day after day, you don't get that much benefit. Over the years I have had to go to physical therapy, and when they dismiss me from PT, I come home and continue doing the exercises. I never smoked and I drank in moderation. Now I don't drink at all."

She said she doesn't pay too much attention to politics.

"I have a few friends — we think the three or four of us should run the country," she concluded.

Maggie B. Cassidy, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at mcassidy@sover.net.

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