Her spirit is huge but her body is tiny. All her life Mary has wanted to be 5 ft tall. She never quite made it, but she looks as if she is still trying. She holds herself upright with not a bend in the back or hunch in the shoulder. She is always perfectly made up with a striking periwinkle eye shadow to match the twinkle in her eyes, Her hair, an unnatural shade of red, verging dangerously towards orange is long and beautifully cared for.
She has a tiny and beautiful watch on her wrist, but she can no longer see the hands, unless the light is just right. She refuses to change it for one with a larger face as that would be a sign of old age. The light in her cabin is not bright enough and she never knows what time it is when she wakes up. But somehow she is always ready and beautifully presented for breakfast.
She emerges from her cabin in a different outfit every day, each one stylish and of the moment, and usually complemented by a statement necklace, a wide belt and a shoulder bag. At 95 she is a striking presence.
And when she realises there is a camera pointing at her, she knows just how to strike a pose:
And when it’s a close up she steals the scene, even when she is co starring with Gordon
She loves to talk, and tells many stories of her long life. She also loves to laugh. When she laughs, her eyes sparkle, and her mouth opens wide. She poses like that for a split second revealing her own teeth and a little pink tongue, which always cracks us up. Then she releases a long and infectious laugh that is a deep throated and joyous cackle. Finally in a rather girlish gesture, she covers her face with her hand as if embarrassed by the the noise that comes out of her tiny frame
At 14 she started work in a cotton mill in Manchester. By the time World War II broke out five years later, she was already married. Her husband went off to fight leaving her to look after their baby son, but she immediately volunteered to work in the factory assembling the famous Lancaster Bomber plane.
She was taught how to be a welder, and for six years she worked the twelve hour night shift, seven days a week. Manchester was one of the most heavily bombed cities in England, with air raids happening almost every night. But the women in the Lancaster factory never left their posts unless they heard three long whistles. Those whistles told them that the bombs were getting dangerously close to the factory. Then, and only then did they run for the shelter.
Tears come to her eyes as she tells us her husband was killed in action and on June 19th her three year old child was killed – a direct hit by a German bomb on the nursery which minded him while she worked. She has lived with her grief for all these years, but still every year she dreads the approach of June 19th. The rest of the year she can handle, but the grief consumes her on that date. The war took everything from her, but she never stopped working at the factory, determined to do her part for her country
Amazingly she says that those six years were the best years of her life. The camaraderie that was formed among the wonderful women working in the factory was something that would never be repeated and it helped her get through her two great losses.
She tells us, rightfully full of pride, that at the end of the war the famous DamBuster pilots, an elite Lancaster Bomber unit, came to the factory to thank them all for making such a great plane.
Mary tells us the next story as we are walking through the streets of Wurzburg.
This is a small but charming town in Germany. It is Saturday morning and the pedestrian only street is packed with Germans.
Mary seems oblivious to this fact as she tells us of her brother who at the beginning of the war desperately wanted to join an elite group of soldiers. He had a terrible stutter and his father suggested this might prevent him from joining the marines. She tells us of her brother’s reply in a particularly loud voice, which was:
“I’m not going to talk the bloody Germans to death. I am going to shoot them”
We are horrified and look round to see if anyone has understood her. I suggest that perhaps this is not quite the right time to tell any more stories of the war.
She looks at me, and then looks at where she is, and her mouth opens and out comes a long loud throaty cackle of a laugh.
The great celebrations that occurred when the war ended were followed by some of the darkest days for those that had survived the war. The men came back from battle having seen the most horrendous sights. They came back to a new world that they had to adjust to. The women found it just as hard. All of a sudden they were no longer wanted in the factories. The few jobs that were available were given to the men. The women went back to being second class citizens
Mary was at a loss. She was single and alone in the world. But she has never allowed circumstances to get the better of her. She thought about what she could do and realised that with her experience making airplanes, the airforce might welcome her. And welcome her they did. And once again Mary felt wanted and useful.
Now she was surrounded by men, instead of women. Mary thought this was a great improvement (my thoughts entirely). Particularly as the men in question were young, fit , handsome and in a uniform (see what I mean). Who can resist a man in a uniform? Mary certainly couldn’t. She gave a few a test run, before deciding that the one she wanted to take home was her adjutant. Before long they were living together and he proved to be the second great love of her life. This time though, she didn’t want to get married and always au fait with the current terminology, she refers to him as her partner.
The earliest date she could retire from the Army and still get a pension was ten years. So after ten years she left the army knowing she had secured a small but reliable income for her retirement. But Mary was smart. She wanted more out of her retirement than just surviving on a small pension. She wanted to have fun and see the world.
So once again she took stock of what would work for her. It didn’t take long for her to see that she could move from the RAF to the Civil Service and this time get a much larger government pension. So for the next twenty five years she worked as a Civil Servant.
Today, all those years later, she still receives both pensions.
Her eyes twinkle when she adds “ I bet they didn’t count on me living this long! I’m costing them a bloomin’ fortune”
And then the throaty laugh comes once again
The adjutant, long gone (we know not where as she never mentions it) she now lives with Emily, the third love of her life. Emily is a black labrador and she dotes on her. This is the first holiday she has had where she has not been able to take her. She misses her terribly and persuades the reception desk on board ship to phone home for her every three days to check on Emily.
Previously, Mary would go on driving holidays around England, taking Emily with her. The thought of Mary driving herself round England is a little scary, and the DMV agreed with that assessment a few years ago and refused to renew her license.
Once more Mary looked around for a good alternative and discovered there are small planes which fly to the Channel Islands that allow one dog a week to fly. Mary put Emily’s name down on a waiting list and eventually received notification that she and Emily could make the trip. She had to pay full fare for Emily, but Emily got a seat of her own. As Mary tells it, there were only twenty seats, and at boarding they called each passenger by name. When they called for Mary Johnson and Emily, Emily jumped up, ran across the tarmac, up the stairs, onto to the aircraft and grabbed a prime window seat leaving Mary to sit in the aisle seat next to her. A little poetic license might have to be allowed here, but it’s a great story, and Mary’s favourite. We hear her tell it over and over again to whomever she is talking to. When the punch line comes, it is always followed by that laugh.
At home, she walks Emily for an hour each morning, and then walks into town to do her shopping. After lunch she walks Emily for another hour. This explains her stamina on this cruise. Every day there is a walking tour of the town where the ship stops and some of them last for three to four hours. Mary has only missed one and that was because the crew told her that they couldn’t take her as we would be climbing up a rocky pathway to a castle. She begrudgingly agreed not to go.
The tour is often preceded by a coach ride to the center of town, and Mary nimbly climbs the steps into the coach, shaming many who struggle aboard, hauling themselves up by the handrail. Once the walking tour begins, Mary walks slowly and carefully and takes a stick if she knows there will be cobblestones,
but she never lags behind, walking faster than many of her fellow travelers, most of whom are twenty years younger.
She never asks for a seat and prefers to stay standing. If the tour is in the morning she always goes for a walk on board in the afternoon. She says if she sits for too long her limbs stiffen up, and she is not going to let that happen. She walks round the ship’s lounge and we count the circuits she makes much to her amusement. But as the cruise goes on, the circuits take longer and longer as she stops and chats with everyone she has met.
She is loving it.
We ask her if she will take another cruise. She says she is not sure.
“I will be 96 next year, and maybe I will be too old”
“If you are not too old at 95, I doubt you will be too old at 96” I reply
She cackles with delight
I will miss her.