First Posted: 5/8/2014
Mary Ann Barilla celebrated her 103rd birthday on Monday surrounded by family and friends. Looking back on her life, she reflects on riding in a horse-drawn carriage, cooking ethnic food for her family and growing a variety of irises in her back yard. She also looks back on being held at gunpoint by an intruder and being hit by lightning – twice!
The oldest resident of Mercy Nursing Center in Dallas, the centenarian is often surrounded by family members who include four children, 10 grandchildren, 17 great grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. Her room at the center is filled with family photos and momentos of those she loves. Many of those photos reflect her marriage to her husband of 63 years, John, who passed away in 1996. And although she loves remembering her life as a wife, mother, gardener and employee, she is also busy making new memories at the center.
“To mom, holidays such as Mother’s Day and birthday celebrations are simply an opportunity to spend time with family,” said son John. “That is truly what Mom enjoys most.”
Born in 1911, Mary Ann has a unique perspective on the past and present. Although she remembers using a wringer washing machine, using an ice box to keep things cold and attending school in a simple school room, she is not adverse to modern inventions. She also liked going to the casino.
“I remember being on the bus with Mom when she was 92 on the way to Atlantic City,” said daughter Joan Solack, of Luzerne. “Others were surprised she was making the trip at her age, but Mom just loved making the trip.”
Now Mary Ann equally loves playing Bingo at the center, often accompanied by John.
A talented gardener, she enjoyed growing irises in her back yard in Swoyersville throughout much of her life. She emphasizes these were not just “any” assortment of irises but an attempt to grow every kind.
“If a catalog came out with a new type of iris, I was always so excited,” Mary Ann said, “I had to order it right away.”
She has not been forced to put the beauty of an iris behind her. In her room, directly in front of her bed, is a painting of an iris. A gift from her granddaughter, the effort brings not only a reminder of the beloved flower, but also of the full life she has led.
“When I went to first grade, I remember Mom bringing me to school on my first day. I was really quiet and scared.” said John. “Sitting at my desk, I looked up through tears and saw my mother with a tear in her eye, waving good-bye. That is who my mother was.”
From that little desk, John went on to graduate from college, as did all his sisters.
Mary Ann and her husband were unable to complete high school, but their value of education insured that their children and grandchildren would have an opportunity for good educations.
Solack said her mother was known for her kindness and gentle spirit. Never quick to criticize, when confronted with a misbehaving child, Mary Ann would always remind others, “He’s just a kid.”
“She was truly a wonderful mother. She didn’t yell at us and we loved spending time with her and that she was our Mom,” said Solack.
Despite her quiet spirit, Mary Ann also had spunk. When she and her husband confronted an intruder in a neighbor’s home, they were held at gunpoint and thought “it was the end.” Mary Ann’s quick thinking saved the day and, perhaps, their lives. She and her husband pushed a heavy piece of furniture in front of the door of the room in which they were being held and went out on the roof to get help.
On a trip to Wilkes-Barre, electric wires fell on top of their car and the family had to wait, without moving or touching any metal, until they were rescued.
A smiling John said, “We made the news several times.”
Hit by lightning while working in a local silk mill, Mary Ann recounts that she blacked out and fell to the floor.
What happened next? The boss asked her if she was okay and then she went right back to work. This spirit of strength and resolve still defines her life.
Mary Ann also had a great love of fishing, especially fly fishing, with John, a passion he continues in his own life as an award-winning bass fisherman.
When asked what has sustained her through her 103 years, Mary Ann said that she simply has “kept living a good life every day.” She also relies on her faith which is a fundamental part of her life. She keeps her rosary beads around her neck, ready for prayer at any time. They are the first thing she looks for in the morning.
“They take me to church every day,” she said. “That is another reason I like living here at this beautiful center.”