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99-Year-Old's Advice: Get an Education While You Can

Oct. 9, 2004 – The story of how Mary Innis met her husband as a young woman reads like a fairy tale. She was a barefoot housemaid; he was a shoemaker. Every day, after cooking dinner and setting the table for the family she worked for, Mary would go out and buy a bag of peanuts. On her way, she would see the shoemaker.
"Every day I would pass," Innis remembers. "One day, he said, 'Miss, give me a peanut.' I crossed the street and gave him one. Every day now he was looking for his peanuts. We become friends. We were boyfriend and girlfriend."
That shoemaker's name was Alberto Innis. One day as she shared her peanuts, he handed her a box. Inside were shoes for Mary, the first pair she'd ever owned.
"I said, 'I can’t afford those shoes,' but he wanted to give them to me. He didn’t even measure my feet. I tried them on, and those shoes fit perfectly."
As beautiful as that Cinderella moment was, it's not where happily ever after began for Mary and Alberto. There was a falling out, and the two didn't speak for eight years. "I never say 'hey,' he never say 'you,'" says Innis. But she still passed him every evening on her way to buy peanuts. "It happened one night, I see him out the window. I say ‘Hey, you. Who win the fight?' We got together again, and that's when we married, in 1939. We went along until he died. He was 82 when he died."
Innis, now 99 years old, searches a shelf in her small, immaculate apartment and pulls out an old framed photograph. "The shoemaker's picture," she says.
Innis’s home buzzes with activity. The sounds of her busy at work in the kitchen can be heard from the sidewalk in front of her home. The aroma of potato pudding baking in the oven wafts through the apartment. She's made it just to see if she can remember how. On the dining room table, a vase spills over with freshly cut white roses, nurtured on the bush by Innis herself. "Did you see my roses?" she asks. "I grew them outside. Dear me."
A moment later she's back in the past, remembering. "He was a very nice shoemaker. The people he made shoes for are all dead and gone," she says with a sigh.
Innis was born Mary Griffin on May 10, 1905, in Park Yard on St. Thomas, the oldest of four children. Her father was a butcher; her mother grew vegetables to sell. Innis would spend every morning getting pails of water, gathering firewood, and selling vegetables before going off to Catholic school.
She remembers when the Virgin Islands were sold by the Danes to the United States in 1917. Innis went to the celebration with her class, waved the American flag and sang for all she was worth. She wore a white dress, one of two she owned, and was barefoot. She says she was happy that day.
But when her mother died, Innis had to make work a priority over school and fun. With school behind her, Innis continued to teach herself, reading anything she could get her hands on and staying inquisitive.
"I had to work for myself. I did housework, laundry, cooking for people," she says. "I used to scrub the floor with Oldwife fish skins. I worked very hard and I don't regret it today. I came up hard – the hard, hard way – and I thank God for it because after I became a women I knew how to take care of myself."
After she finished her housework, Innis loved going to see movies at the Apollo, a theater at the bottom of Government Hill. Later on, she went to the Center Theater on Main Street. "When they opened the Center the first night, I won a prize, a bottle of Maya Perfume," Innis says. "I have to tell you I was all dressed up."
Mary never had children of her own, but raised Alfonso Morell, her godson, whose own parents died when he was a baby. "He called me 'Nenie Mary.' I raised him from a baby. We were very close, he was like my son," Innis says. "I gave him his schooling." She was very strict with Morell about the proper use of language, earning her the nickname "GramMaryAn," a play on the word "grammarian."
"The only thing I couldn't do was send him to college. He wanted to be a doctor but I couldn't afford it. So he went to the service. He was in the Korean War."
When Innis and her husband moved to New York in 1950, Morell was with them. Innis worked as a hospital ward maid. By 1969, she was ready to come back to St. Thomas. "I had the feeling to come home," she says. "When I told the boy, he said, 'Nenie, you want to go home? All right, leave everything to me.' He got the crate and took care of moving our things."
Innis' husband passed away in 1982. Her godson passed away a few years ago as well. But she still has a strong support network around her. She met one of her dearest friends, Eleanor Cerge, by chance 20 years ago.
"One Sunday morning, she was dressed with hat, gloves, bag to match, waiting to get to church," says Cerge. "It looked like it was going to rain, so I stopped to see if I could give her a ride. We went to Sts. Peter and Paul Church. It's been 20 years. I still take her when she's able to go to church."
Innis also relies on Eurita Vanterpool from the Department of Human Services, who has worked for her for 24 years.
"When she needs her medicine I pick it up, pay her bills, write letters, take her to the doctor. Anything she wants me to do, I do it," says Vanterpool. "She's like my mother. She's stronger than me and you, honey. I have my aches and pains, she has hers, but she's stronger than me."
Innis never complains, Vanterpool adds.
Innis often cooks and shares the meals with her neighbors and friends. "That’s the way she is, she doesn't feel happy unless she shares. She's always been very kindhearted," says Cerge.
A devout Catholic, Innis was one of the founding members of the Mary and Joseph Society, a member of the Sacred Heart and Catholic Daughters of America. "She's forever reading prayers. She could be cooking in the kitchen – stops, and reads prayers," says Cerge. "She's always busy doing something. At age 99 she doesn't sit quiet."
With all the years behind her, Innis says the best piece of advice she can give to the younger generation is to "get an education while you can get it, and put it to good use. And learn to wash, cook and clean."
If she were pressed, Innis might also advise people to enjoy life: "I made 99, I’m going to make 109," she says.
"Do you want to have a party when you make 100?" Vanterpool asks.
"Of course," Innis laughs. "Every year I have a little party. But at 100 I’m going to have a band. They’re going to be dressed up. Oh, lord! Well, talk is cheap."
Maybe, but Mary Innis' home is rich in love and laughter.

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