My father’s mother, Grandma Berry, as we called her, was born in 1909. Grandma was divorced when my dad was about five and later married Gerald Berry. He was a kind, easy going man that worked at one of the Ford plants in Detroit. I remember his metal lunch pail. It was black on the outside and shiny metal gray on the inside. Many men had that same lunch pail. Jerry, as we called him, died in 1960. Grandma was a widow for 34 years before she died in 1994. Grandma never considered remarrying. In the early 90’s, she told me an elderly religious gentleman, that had recently become a widower, asked her to marry him. She become so anxious at the thought that the only thing she could think to say and not hurt his feelings was, “Oh, no. I couldn’t marry. I’m married to Jesus!” The gentleman understood and did not pursue the matter any further.
As an older adult, Grandma learned to read the Bible. Grandma was a highly religious woman. Her favorite saying was, “the main identical thing is… you must be born again!” Grandma was outspoken, controlling and always right (so she thought).
During our pre-teen years, my sister, Laurie, and I spent a lot of time at her house. Grandma did not allow us to watch many secular programs on the one television that was in the house. One day, she went on a short errand and left Laurie and I in the house. We immediately turned on a music program, probably Dick Clark’s Bandstand. We had the TV turned up loud and were dancing the mashed-potatoes, hully-gully or something from that era. Well, she got back and we didn’t hear her coming into the house. She was “fit to be tied!” Grandma never spank us, but sometimes I wish she had instead of the “talking to” we got.
Needless to say, Grandma and I had our differences. For instance, when I got married to Floyd, whom she liked very much and thought would become a preacher, she refused to come to the wedding. It was in December and VERY COLD, so I didn’t push the issue. However, she said she wasn’t coming because this was my third marriage and she had been at the first one and that was enough. So, Floyd and I just stopped by her house in the limo after the wedding on our way to Canada for our honeymoon.
In contrast to this, Grandma would call me regularly during my college and young adult years. She would ask, “How should I be praying for you?”. She asked because she knew I led an adventurous life, and she wanted Yehovah to protect me. I loved this side of Grandma.
When Laurie and I visited Grandma Berry on the weekends, the routine was very different than it was at home. Grandma kept the Sabbath on Saturday. The most food preparation she did was to boil some hot dogs. It was a rest day. Sometimes we were there when a small band of like-minded folk came for a Bible study and singing. I liked the singing part because we got to ring the metal triangle and play the tambourine.
The head of this group was Sister Hillman. She was 50-something at the time. She appeared to be older than my Grandma. She was a small boned woman about 5’4”, brown skin and plain looking. From what I remember, she wore her natural hair pulled back in a turban sort of hat. To me, as a youngster, she was a quiet sort and seemed very religiously devout.
I was away from Detroit from 1963 (14 years of age) to 1989 (40 years of age).
When I returned to Detroit, I never heard anymore about Sister Hillman. I assumed she was either dead
or the group had disbanded and were going their separate ways. Grandma never mentioned her and it never crossed my mind to ask about Sister Hillman.
Well, when Grandma died in 1994, my sister and I had the task of cleaning out Grandma’s house. I was removing the things out of the buffet drawers. In the bottom drawer, I discovered an old Detroit newspaper. I was surprised because I had never seen a newspaper in Grandma’s house.
Grandma was very old-fashioned. She had one rotary telephone in her two-story, three bedroom house. I tried on several occasions to get her to have another phone put upstairs. She refused. My dad and I offered to pay for it. She refused. We put a long cord on it so that she could take the phone up the stairs when she went to bed. She refused to carry it up the stairs. And she never came down the stairs to answer the phone, no matter how long you let it ring.
Eventually, we got the message. The final conversation on the topic of the telephone went something like this:
“Grandma, what if you needed someone to come and help you during the night and the phone is down stairs and you can’t get to it?”
“Well, Grandma, what if someone needs you and you don’t come down to hear what they want?”
“Well, when I go up to bed, I ain’t coming back down and going out to see about nobody. All I can do is pray and I’m doing that already!”
“I know what’s going on in the world! Just read your Bible and it’ll tell you everything that’s going on.”
So…., when I saw a newspaper, I knew that something out of the ordinary had to be in there in order for Grandma to have it and to have kept it. (Click the photos to enlarge them.)
I started to go through the paper and was hoping that it wasn’t some small tiny news item. I thought maybe it was an obituary notice she kept. However, as I flipped through the pages, trying to look through Grandma’s eyes as to what she thought was worth saving from 1982, my eyes fell on a half-page spread with photos. I screamed. I yelled for Laurie, Mama and Floyd to come “right now”.
There in black and white was a half page spread with photos of Sister Hillman. The headline was “Love story – the bride is 83; husband is 24.” We were all shocked! There were eight hands reaching for the paper to read it. We had to lay the paper on the table so everybody could see it at the same time. I was reading faster than the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading course could teach.
- Her neighbors are shocked. Her daughter and grandchildren are “freaked out”. But, Mary Petty couldn’t be happier.
- Mrs. Petty has outlived three husbands since she came to Detroit from Georgia as a young woman in 1921.
- Curtis Petty, a native Detroiter, grew up only two houses from her, mowed her lawn and did other chores to earn spending money. He is now a mechanic’s helper in his father’s auto repair shop and is learning the trade.
- Mrs. Petty, said he was a bit wild as a youngster, but is now working hard and leading a Christian life. “He’s younger than my grandson,…sometimes he slips up and calls me ‘Grandma’, she said laughing.”
- A couple of weeks ago Petty needed to buy a uniform for a part time restaurant job, so he asked “Grandma” if he could paint her fence. She brought the uniform for him, and told him the paint job was beautiful. “You’re beautiful – and I want a wife just like you,” he replied. “I told him, ‘I’ll pray for you to find one,’” Mrs. Petty recalled. But he said I was the one he wanted for a wife. I laughed at first, but he was really serious, so I thought about it.”
- …”I needed a man around the house. I always take my problems to the Lord, so I asked Him for advice. Two days later, I dreamed that a tall, light-skinned black man took my hand and took me for a long walk. …After Curtis asked me to marry him, I realized the he was the man in my dream. I truly believe the dream came to me from God.”
Highlights from the November 2, 1982 Detroit Free Press:
- On October, 15, 1982, they eloped to Toledo, but kept the marriage a secret until the news leaked out this week.
- “I asked God for a husband,” Mary says. “It was like I asked for a cookie and got a pound cake. I have a full life as a woman married to a young healthy man.
(My recent research found that this story was also reported in The Pittsburgh Press, the Montreal Gazette and the The Daily Record, Ellensburg, Washington. Click the name of the newspapers to read the articles.)
Now, we were blown-away. Sister Hillman, the leader of the Bible Class, who we remembered as being more religious than Grandma, married a 24 year old! We just looked at each other, hardly knowing what to say. We could only assume that Grandma was mortified that Sister Hillman would marry a youngster and wasn’t satisfied with Jesus as her husband. We all understood why Grandma had hid the papers and not breathed a word of this to any of us.
BUT, HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS! There was another newspaper in the buffet drawer. The article from the November 5, 1982, Detroit Free Press was titled:
“Just married, escapee enters plea of guilty.”
I Yelled, “What!!!”
Again eight frenzied hands reached for the newspaper.
Curtis Petty had pleaded guilty to a charge of escaping from a criminal halfway house. He was serving 2 to 15 years for breaking and entering. Petty’s status was going to be reclassified to a higher level of custody than the minimal security halfway house.
In 1994, at 46 years of age, I decided right then and there that Sister Hillman must have had dementia (or something) and Curtis had taken advantage of her.
However, in 2013, my views have changed. Laurie still had the articles amongst my Grandmother’s papers. When I re-read the articles, at 64 years of age, I am less apt to judge her harshly for the decision she made. Although, Curtis was not honest with Mary about escaping from the halfway house; she had to have known that he had been in trouble with the law, even if she didn’t know he was “wanted” at the time.
I can see Mary’s point of view a little better now, after all, she was in good health. She was sound of mind and managed several thriving businesses. Mary obviously enjoyed married life; she had outlived three husbands. According to the articles, she was considering another marriage before Petty approached her.
Older women do have needs for companionship and intimacy. The *older woman + older man* formula is a familiar one in the Scriptures. Sarah at 90 years of age was intimate with Abraham. Elizabeth was of an old age when she was having marital relations with Zechariah.
In my way of thinking, Sister Hillman had a better formula. Given a choice, I believe a lot of women would choose the *older woman + younger man* formula.
Why do YOU think Mary married Curtis?
Why do YOU think Curtis married Mary?
Share this story with your friends,
I’d like to know what THEY think!
For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. — Luke 8:17 New International Version
Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are. — Muhammad Ali