Looking back across the years, Mary McConnell sees herself as ordinary, a shy girl who grew up, got married and lived a long and happy life. She cannot explain how she’s made it to 100.
Then she starts sharing memories, and it’s clear that the woman known around Seven Mile Road and Awendaw simply as “Miss Mary,” is anything but ordinary.
Miss Mary’s milestone birthday was Nov. 3, and family and friends from across the community threw her a party. Dozens of people whose lives she had touched over the years came by to be with her, wish her well and say thanks.
“We’re just like a family and they all came the other day and it seemed like they enjoyed it themselves,” she said.
And then there was the dancing, an activity that her late husband had never liked. Miss Mary showed that she still has some moves when an old friend took the lead on the dance floor. “He said he was showing me the two-step because I forgot how to do the two-step, but he showed me. I wish we had danced a little longer,” she laughed, “But that’s how it goes.”
Mary and her husband married in 1935, and starting four years later, they built and ran the A.B. McConnell community store on Highway 17 North (and several other roadside shops and gas stations) along the two-lane road connecting the Cooper River and Georgetown.
Black or white; very poor or very rich, folks would do business there. Their little country store was the center of a rural universe for several generations of South Carolinians living in or passing through that stretch of Lowcountry. McConnell’s Store was the best and closest source of food and fuel, information, gossip and community news.
The local magistrate would hold court out front and even millionaire industrialists like the Guggenheims and the Baruchs, who owned hunting preserves, also would come by – or send someone to shop for them. Famed World War II aviator, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle once shopped there while on a hunting trip.
The McConnells lived and worked together at their store until A.B.’s death in 1967, and she then kept the store going until age and the competition from big stores in nearby Mount Pleasant finally took their toll on her business. But Miss Mary kept it going, sometimes open just a few hours a day and selling drinks and snacks until last year. That translates to 75 years at the store, “retiring” at the young age of 99.
What’s the secret to her long life? “I really don’t know,” she said. “I just had an ordinary life. We did pretty good with the store. I didn’t think I’d ever live this long. When I was 80, and I was fighting for a living. I didn’t worry about how old I was.“
Age has, however, played games with some memories, she said, but she still tells a good story and is able to laugh at herself.
Her best – and most embarrassing memory – is about a memory lapse. It happened when she and A.B. McConnell went to a judge in Georgetown to get married. That was 80 years ago. “The man said, repeat your name and he didn’t tell me my name and I couldn’t think of it,” she said, laughing as she recalled and mimicked the cackling from her soon-to-be brother-in-law.
Other memories stick out.
During World War Two, German prisoners were housed in the Lowcountry, and she’s convinced one of them was on the loose and slept on her porch one rainy night while hiding from authorities.
She said she was awakened by a man’s snoring and “soon observed that it wasn’t my husband.” She went to the porch and saw the noise was coming from a man who was sleeping there. “I woke up my husband and he said, ‘Mary, the poor man, he’s just sleeping. In the morning, he’ll be gone.’ And in the morning, he was gone,” she said. They heard later that authorities were looking for an escaped POW and they believe that was the man snoring on their porch.
Then there was the robbery, the only successful one during all the years she ran the store.
According to the News and Courier Police Blotter on January 12, 1980, two men, one armed with a sawed off shotgun, robbed the store at 10 one morning and grabbed $50 in cash and $60 in food stamps from the cash register.
“When they had me kneel down and get under the counter under my cash register or they would come back and kill me, I got down,” she said. “I could have turned on an alarm and it would have started making noise, but I didn’t do it because I think they would have come back and killed me.”
Miss Mary also has lived through countless hurricanes, and she and her family stayed put at the store when Hurricane Hugo blew through in 1989. “If we’d evacuated like they wanted us to, we wouldn’t have had anything to come back to.”
Asked if she was scared, Miss Mary said, “we were too busy to be scared,” she said, describing putting plywood over double doors and a tree blowing down on her house.
These days, she crochets, spends time with family and enjoys a quiet life near Bulls Bay, watching the tides and enjoying the sweet smells of sea and marsh that stir memories of her long and happy years near the Carolina coast.
Told that she is far from ordinary and really has had a remarkable life, Miss Mary McConnell pauses and smiles, acknowledging that truth of that as she remembers her recent birthday party.
“I have. I really have,” she says. “Believe it or not, I have.”