‘Work is a blessing:’ The gift of satisfying work in later life

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 2, 2012

Physician Alexis Carrel, recipient of the 1912 Nobel Prize in Medicine for pioneering work on vascular suturing, organ transplants and the aging of cells, famously said, “The aging man should neither stop working nor retire. Leisure is even more dangerous for the old than for the young.”

That also applies to women, according to Mary Grierson.   Born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, Mary is now 83 and still working – and loving every minute.

Mary has been a practicing nurse for 61 years – and married for 61 years.  She told me, with a wink in her eye, that she would have been married longer, but “in the old days, the nuns wouldn’t let us get married during nurses’ training.  We even had hours.  They were like house mothers in a sorority.”

I met Mary several months ago when I reported one morning to Ann Arundel Gastroenterology for a routine examination of my upper-body plumbing.  My nurse was Joan Grierson.  As Joan and I were chatting away, Mary walked in and asked, “How are you doing?”

“Just great,” I said.  “I have a good nurse here taking care of me.”

Mary shot back, “You sure do.  She’s the best.”  As Mary flashed a thumbs-up gesture and walked on down the hall, I said to Joan, “Sounds like I’m in good hands.”  Joan smiled and said, “That’s very kind of her, but I must confess, she’s my mother.”

Mary is an inspiring woman – an attentive and fabulously compassionate nurse who also has a commanding presence.  She is a listener but has strong points of view, which she freely expresses – on any subject.  Above all, however, she has a gentle and a light-hearted manner that makes everyone feel relaxed and in good hands.

She met her husband Henry, now 88, when Mary’s uncle played match maker.  After a career as a machinist model maker at the David Taylor Naval Research Center, Henry moved to a bonus years career as the owner-operator of school buses serving Catholic schools.   Mary said, “A better man I could not find.  And he’s frugal.  We were a team in everything we did – and full partners in raising our family.  He even does dishes and windows.”   Because my wife was standing close by, I quickly changed the subject.

I wanted to learn more about this amazing woman I met just before they put me to sleep, so several weeks later, Mary and I had coffee at the Double T Diner.  Because she doesn’t have email (“I don’t have time for computers,” she says), I had to make the appointment the old fashioned way.   So I called her.

As we talked, I asked, “Mary, what are you going to do when you retire?”

“Retire?  I passed my retirement age almost 20 years ago.  I am now 83 and counting.  I love doing what I do.  I will never retire,” she said defiantly.  “I will quit nursing when I feel I can’t perform at 100 percent.   But then, if they will take me, I will volunteer at AACH in neo-natal intensive care.  I love little babies.”

She comes to her love of babies naturally.  Mary and Henry raised nine children, including two adopted siblings.  All nine of their grown children – along with 18 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren – live in the Baltimore-Annapolis area, and four live in Cape St. John, the community Mary and Henry call home.   The entire family is together for all the major holidays and they share a cottage close to the beach in Bethany.  “It has been a wonderful life.  We have lived for our kids, sent them all to Catholic schools and wouldn’t do anything differently. Besides, where could you ever get anyone to baby sit for nine kids?”

Mary also comes to her love of work naturally.  She was raised on the old Sunny Hill farm in Crownsville, now home to the Renaissance Festival.  Her father raised tobacco, corn, wheat and soy beans along with chickens he sold to local restaurants.  “There was no machinery.  Just horses and kids.  We all learned to work hard.  We had daily chores – in the house, barn and fields.  We all knew our responsibilities, and we did them.  Work was a family affair.  I also learned to cook, can fruits and veggies (“I can everything I can get my hands on,” she says) and garden, which are still favorite pastimes – along with reading mystery stories and doing counted cross-stitch needle work.”

Mary said she never anticipated a career in nursing until she was a teenager and her chores expanded to include the tobacco fields.  “Tobacco was hard and messy work. Because of that experience, I decided never be a smoker or marry a farmer.”

At age 18, she received a nurses training scholarship to St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.  She has been nursing ever since.  She started as a night shift private duty nurse followed by 23 years as supervisor of the night shift recovery room at the old AACH hospital in downtown Annapolis and then 14 years the evening shift at Ginger Cove where, as a staff nurse, she actually worked for daughter Joan, who was head nurse. “By working nights,” she said, “Henry and I were able to raise our kids ourselves, by our values, and not farm them out to day care.”

When asked why she works, even into her bonus years, she said, “I love it!  I don’t need to work.  But to me work is a blessing.  I love helping people and in the end, that’s what work is all about – no matter what kind of work you do.”

As we departed, I thought of Mary, the nuns and the ancient Scriptures, which say, “…there is nothing better for men than to be happy…do good…and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.”  By this measure, Mary has clearly been gifted.

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