To celebrate her birthday on June 10, Mary Gibson came down to the community room at the Peace Care St. Joseph’s Facility in a wheelchair rather than her historic walker, but had lost none of her historic wit.
Gibson celebrated her birthday among family and friends that day, although technically she turned 109 on June 6.
Gibson has lived at the home on Pavonia Avenue since 2015.
“Every night I ask God to allow me to see another sunrise,” she said. “I’m grateful for that.”
She’s been saying this since she turned 80, family members say, so God has allowed her to see a lot of sunrises.
Born in Clio, S.C., Gibson moved to Jersey City with her family when she was a teenager and has been a resident here ever since. She married Pell Edward in 1930, and raised four children in her home on Ege Avenue.
When she was 15, she started working for Emerson Radio near Sixteenth Street, assembling radios and phonographs.
A real wisecracker
Gibson is well-known for her witty remarks and for her ability to know what is going on around her despite the fact that she is legally blind.
Gibson’s daughter, Barbara McDonald, 82, of Jersey City, said her mother is very outspoken.
“She is not afraid to speak her mind,” McDonald said.
Hard of hearing and legally blind, she’s still sharp with the wisecracks, said Gibson’s granddaughter, Daffney Slack.
When asked if she likes Jersey City, she replied sharply, “Some people moved out of here, but they always come back.”
She is particularly fond of taunting those who seek to test her awareness. When a doctor asks, “Do you know my name?” she often replies, “You don’t know your own name?”
She has a similar reply when asked if she knows who is president of the United States, asking, “You don’t know who the president is?”
When asked about her age, she said, “I was born in 1909; you figure it out.”
Although soft spoken, Gibson is seen as a “no-nonsense take-charge” kind of person.
In fact, when wheeled up to the table where she greeted her family, she joked, “I can’t find my glasses. I can’t see a thing.”
Some family members claim she sees and hears what she wants to hear. The husband of one of her granddaughters recalled passing her a glass of wine.
“She asked ‘What’s in the glass?’ I said, ‘I thought you were blind?’ She said she never told me that,” he said.
“Every night I ask God to allow me to see another sunrise.” – Mary Gibson
A witness to history
If she didn’t see her family and friends at first, they each came up to her to greet her, the matriarch of a century of tradition.
Nearly 40 people helped share her birthday party, bringing balloons to a woman who has been an institution in their lives as parent, churchgoer, assembly line worker, seamstress, health aid volunteer, and more.
The mother of four, Gibson has outlived two of her children but has seen the birth of 11 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and recently, a great, great grandchild. Her husband passed away in 1975.
When Gibson was born, William Howard Taft had just taken over as president of the United States from outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt. But women did not have the right to vote.
Mark Twain was still alive. So was Thomas Edison, and explorers had just reached the South Pole for the first time. Automobiles had just started to replace horse and buggies. World War I and the Great Depression were in the future.
She has seen 20 presidents and 21 Jersey City mayors. Frank Hague was mayor of Jersey City when she arrived.
She voted last for President Barack Obama. Two years ago, Obama and his wife sent her a letter congratulating her on her 107th birthday. “Your story is integral as part of the American narrative,” it said. “You have witnessed the best of what our nation can accomplish if we work together.”
Wearing a birthday tiara and dressed in a pink gown sporting a large corsage, Gibson’s wit was slightly dampened by her slow and soft speaking voice.
Thanks to her eyesight, she mistook a reporter asking her questions for her minister. “You’ve dyed your hair,” she said.
“In many ways she was like a mother to me,” said Edna Richardson, a long-time neighbor of Gibson’s. “I call her ‘baby doll.’ ”
Her birthday celebrations have become an annual event at Peace Care. Until a few years ago, she attended daytime events at the Sunflower Medical Adult Day Care Center in Bayonne.
Gibson’s daughters Loretta Lee and Barbara McDonald of Jersey City arrived with a host of family members, ranging from school age to their 80s.
Gibson and her family attribute her long life to the fact that she ate healthily and did a lot of walking. She said she worked hard, lived a Christian life, and took care of herself.
Prior to 2015, Gibson lived at a senior housing center on Montgomery Street and frequently walked to Pathmark on Grand Street, or along the Exchange Place waterfront.
Worked at Emerson Radio
When she lived on Ege Avenue, she’d walk to work near 16th Street if bad weather stopped the buses from running. She was employed at Emerson Radio Corporation until her retirement in 1971 at age 62 – after which she went back to school to learn tailoring, which she did for another 10 years.
Gibson served as volunteer at Jersey City Medical Center and Christ Hospital, a foster grandparent at the Claremont-Lafayette Center, and a senior companion at the St. Francis Hospital.
Family members said she is a good cook, citing her carrot cake and her potatoes, apparently a family recipe she has passed down to only one relation.
Living the good life
Gibson was parishioner at First Wesleyan Church in Jersey City for as long as most can remember. “She was there when I became pastor 24 years ago,” said Pastor Donavon Shoemaker.
Church member Gloria Turner said the former pastor saw Gibson walking down the street and invited her to take part. Gibson taught vacation bible school.
“She was very religious,” said Barbara Shoemaker, the minister’s wife.
Thomas Sheehy, director of Peace Care, said, “We have a few other [residents] over 100 and a few that are 105 and 106, but she is older than they are.”
Gibson attends other residents’ birthday parties as well as family reunions that take place around the country. She intends to travel to Newport, Va. for the 50th family reunion.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.