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WASHINGTON – Growing up in rural Georgia taught Mary Paige to get by on very little.
“I was raised on the farm,” the Washingtonian said. “I know how to improvise.”
But it’s still tricky for 84-year-old Paige to get by on her monthly $892 Social Security check in one of the most expensive cities in the country. She’s overcome some terrible misfortune – losing a son, two pensions and a widow’s benefit. But she’s fortunate that her apartment building within eyesight of the U.S. Capitol is run by her church and charges less than the skyrocketing market value.
“Pay your rent when you get your check, then you know what you have to live on,” she said. “That's the first check I write. I gotta have a roof over my head.”
Paige worked hard all her life, but with seven children, she never earned enough to save. The two companies that promised her retirement benefits went under. After her husband died in 1971, she went to the VA to apply for her survivor pension, but then was told she was just over the income limit.
So she now survives on her Social Security plus community support and thrift – and she helps other seniors who are less fortunate. Every month, she receives canned goods from We Are Family, a senior-outreach nonprofit in Washington, which helps her stretch her limited food budget. To get the most out of the donated food, she often makes soup – and then shares it with other seniors at a nearby nursing home or at church repasts.
Paige could save some money by moving in with one of her kids in the suburbs. But she’s adamant that she doesn’t want to lose her easy access to her friends and her church, or her independence.
“They live out in the boondocks,” she said. “When they go to work, what am I going to do? I'll stay right here. I can go where I want to go,” rattling off all of the nearby bus lines she uses. “I can come when I want to come and don’t have to wait for anyone. No way, Jose.”
Last year, Paige spent a week in the hospital for leg problems related to her diabetes. Now, she uses a rolling walker with a seat, which she calls her Cadillac.
“By the grace of God, I'm still able to get around,” she said.
Paige is schedule-oriented, with her events revolving mostly around Bible Way Church a couple blocks away. Monday is a fellowship meeting. Wednesday is Bible study. Thursday is the missionaries meeting. When she isn’t at choir practice rehearsing songs like "Peace in the Valley" and “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” two of her favorites, she’s also helping out with funerals and other church functions.
And she’s very active in the church’s True Blue Club, which checks in on seniors and makes sure they’re doing OK. It’s one of many such networks that have sprung around the country, where seniors help older seniors, in the hope of having the same kind of help one day. Paige prepares meals for many other seniors, but “they’re dying out so quick,” she said.
'Thank God for my history'
She’ll turn 85 this June, but she’s not sure the exact day of her birthday.
“The midwives didn’t keep good records back then,” she said, adding that the local courthouse that kept her birth record burned down, too.
She grew up on a family farm outside of Statesboro, Ga., working in the fields, helping harvest peanuts, sugar cane, watermelons, tobacco and cotton. She milked cows, churned butter, cooked for the farm hands and took the tobacco to auction, companies like Camel and Phillip Morris purchased it.
German POWs worked on the farm too, escorted by soldiers from the nearby military fort. Paige got to know one of the soldiers well. They fell in love.
In 1949, the soldier was relocated to Washington, and Paige followed him so they could be married. The nation’s capital was a deeply segregated place, and some businesses refused to serve her. Paige’s church was active in the civil rights movement, and she attended the March on Washington and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. multiple times.
She was working in a department store in Greenbelt, Md., when word came over the loudspeaker that MLK had been assassinated.
“They put that song on, ‘We Shall Overcome,’” she said, choking up. “I'll never forget it … We shall overcome. I think about it now. It’s so emotional to this day.”
And Paige witnessed the riots that came after.
“They set 14th (Street) on fire,” she said. “They were burning down everything.”
There was a lot of fear at the time, she remembered, and anger and desire to do something. That Sunday, and for many Sundays after that, it was tough to get a seat in her church.
“I thank God for my history,” she said. “We have overcome a lot but we still have a long ways to go.”
A lifetime of hard work
Living below the poverty line as a senior can be hard. But Paige has plenty of experience with suffering. When her son Mark was in middle school, he was jumped by several young men after a football game, and suffered a serious head injury. After waking up from a coma, he didn’t speak another word. For years, he lived in a nursing home for $385 a day, until his death in 2001.
No stranger to hard work, Paige often held down multiple jobs to help her kids get through college and pay for Mark’s care. She was a nurse, restaurant hostess, World Book area manager, door-to-door silverware saleswoman, cook, department store clerk and cafeteria cashier.
“I was working day and night,” she said.
Despite all those setbacks, said Paige, “it's been a good life.”
And she’s has no plans of slowing down. Her church is planning on recreating some of its past marches with MLK later this year. Paige plans on being right there, even if she has to take a seat once in a while in her Cadillac.