Like the Model T Ford manufactured just eight years before her birth, Mary Lee Matthews (born Mary Lee Posey) is not old. She’s a classic.
She also can’t be fooled if you try to throw her a surprise party.
August 12th marked Matthews’ 97th birthday so friends and loved ones conspired to give her the one thing she has always insisted she did not want, a birthday party.
“Mrs. Mathews is smart,” said neighbor and friend for over fifty years, Bessie Bradshaw. When the two drove up to Matthews’ home church, Hauser Memorial, the 97 year-old immediately knew she had been bamboozled, declaring accusingly, “There’s people in there.”
“I told her that the church must be having some type of meeting. That we could walk straight past all those people.” said Bradshaw. “She looked at me and said, ‘I’m 97 years old, and I know there’s people in there.”
Yes, there were “people in there”. And, yes, they were there for her.
Family and friends gathered in a celebration that included singing, food, and of course, birthday cake. Those present took turns telling of Matthews’ graciousness, her wisdom, and her boundless ability to make others feel welcomed and loved.
With a sharp mind and even sharper wit, Matthews thanked everyone and told them that they are always welcome to drop by for conversation, something to eat, or a glass of wine. “I love you all,” she said. “When you come visit I never want you to leave.”
“Mrs. Matthews was like a second mother to me and my brothers and sisters,” said Delilah “Dee” Austin whose family lived next door to Matthews for many years. “She always did what she could for us. It was little, but it was important. She was always there to talk to when mama was working. I never forgot Miss Mary Lee.”
Austin, who left Pensacola 60 years ago, said that if she ever returned she would throw Matthews the party her “second mother” never had growing up. After connecting with another of Matthew’s friends, Crystal Spencer, the two began making phone calls and attempting to find all of the people the 97 year-old talked about in her weekly phone calls with Austin.
“Crystal said, ‘she doesn’t want a party’. I said, ‘well she’s getting one’.” Austin continued, “I knew once she saw all the people who love her she would enjoy it.”
Opening cards the next morning Matthews agreed. As she slowly began giving a history lesson – one of her favorite pastimes – about the closing of the “colored hospital”, she slowly drifted off. A big smile spread over her face as she paused, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”