Pieces of the Puzzle


Mid-1950’s–Mary with family members (left to right)

Her parents, Elmer and Merle Townsend; Sis; Paul; Mary; Jimmy; Hughie

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

Harrisonburg News-Record story on January 20, 1954 bragged, “Smallest City to Have Cerebral Palsy Center.”  That headline proclaimed the success the CP parents group experienced when they linked up with the Rockingham County Chapter of the Virginia Society for Crippled Children and Adults.  Even with Sis’s heart issues, plus her daily care for Paul, Mary had been involved with this venture.  It was a dream come true.

The Rockingham Crippled Children’s Center was located in the basement of the Harrisonburg Municipal Building on Main Street.  Mary took Paul there three hours a day, three days each week, for physical and speech therapy, and academic lessons.  Since Hugh had their only car on the road for his sales work, she hired a taxi to transport her and the children.  She deposited Jim at a nursery school, and once Paul was settled, she experienced a rare treat–time for herself.

She enjoyed walking dowtown, visiting different stores, and generally feeling free.  It was when she came across an alteration shop that her pattern changed again.  She felt an urge to go inside where she was quickly noticed.

“Can I help you?”

The voice belonged to a middle-aged woman wearing an apron with bits of colored thread clinging to it abstractly.  She had a measuring tape slung around her neck, and an inquisitive, but friendly face.

“My name is Mary Harris.”  She hadn’t thought about why she had entered the store.  With a relaxed laugh she said, “I noticed your shop and…well, I’ve loved to sew ever since I was a little girl….”

“Oh, you sew!  Wonderful!”

“Yes…when I have time.”

The woman motioned for her to follow.  “Let me show you around.”  She took her into her work area.  “As you can see, I have a lot of work backed up…it’s hard to keep pace with it all.”

She paused and looked keenly at Mary.  “Would you be interested in working part-time?  I mean, I can’t pay a lot, but there’s plenty to do, and I think we could work well together.”

 Mary took the job.

At the center, Paul was making progress.  Verbal communication was a huge problem for him, as it was for most of the children who attended.  A woman named Gray Pifer, who went by the nickname “Pipy,” was his speech therapist.  Blind from birth, she was a musician with a unique talent for teaching children.  She would learn specific things about each one, then write rhymes about those things, often matching the sound of the words to musical tunes.  Each child learned to verbalize sounds related to familiar things in their daily lives.

When she learned that Paul’s dad was building a house, Pipy taught him a rhyme that went like this, “I know how to build a house.   Saw, saw, saw, hammer.”   Soon Paul was forming those words, although you had to listen closely to understand him.  Mary thought Paul felt like he was “getting in on the conversation,” as she would put it, for the first time in his life. Pipy lifted him beyond the squeals and facial expressions he’d always relied on to communicate.

Pipy was only one of the people who impacted Paul.  His physical therapist encouraged him to see his handicap as something he could learn to live with productively. The therapist was studying to become a doctor, and felt that too often people taught handicapped children to see their individual circumstances as barriers to a full life.  He wanted to change that perspective.  His wife worked as a bookkeeper to help him through school, and a few years later he did, indeed, become an obstetrician.

The center touched Paul’s life at the very time when Mary needed this kind of input from beyond herself in caring for him.  She became challenged in unexpected ways, however, when Pipy became ill, and had to leave her work.  She was so unique that it was hard to find a replacement for her.  She needed a year’s absence in a different climate to facilitate her recovery.  The center was governed by a steering committee whose chairperson called Mary, asking her to take Pipy’s role temporarily.

Mary had been concerned about the situation, but hadn’t expected this.  “I thank you for your confidence in me,” she replied, “but I’m not qualified to do that.  Besides, my youngest son is only three years old.  I already have my hands full.”

“I hear what you’re saying, and I understand that.  At the same time, I’ve seen your strengths and abilities with Paul and the other children.  You’ve been right there with Pipy on so many occasions.  Her approach works, and we don’t want to lose that.  You can do this!  You’re the one person I know who can make this happen.  If little Jimmy is your main problem, we can fix that.  My sister runs a nursery school and I’ll arrange for him to attend there.”

 Overwhelmed, Mary prayed about the challenge, and then accepted.  After Pipy returned the next year, Mary looked back and saw how it had been a growth experience for both her and Paul.

Growth came in other ways, too, during these years.  Mary became a familiar presence at the local library.  One day the librarian came to her with a question.  “Excuse me,” she said.  “I see you here a lot, and I wonder…do you know how to type?”

Surprised, Mary smiled and introduced herself.  “I was a secretary for a coal company in Cincinnati a few years ago…it’s been awhile, but yes, I can type.  Why do you ask?”

“I thought maybe you could.  I’m asking because we’re expanding the library to include a whole new catalog of phonograph records.  We need someone who can type to make up the card file for this.  Would you be interested?”

 Mary took on this volunteer work which deepened her love of books and reading.  She found a bookstore run by a Madison College English professor that was located on Main Street.  She discovered that he also needed a typist.  He was writing a novel and needed someone to take dictation.  She still had her stenography machine, so she dusted off her skills and began to live in the unfolding world or fictional characters.  About the time she was really into it, however, he decided to move back to Minnesota–taking the novel drafts with him.  She would never know if the book was published.

A paying job emerged from the want ads.  The Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg needed a part-time secretary.  Mary pondered that for awhile, finally deciding to apply.  She sent a hand-written letter…and was surprised when she was called in for an interview.

“Mrs. Harris, I called you in because of the letter you wrote,” the pastor told her.  “I was impressed by the clarity of your handwriting.  That is a rare gift.”  After interviewing her he said, “When can you come to work?”  She worked at the church for several years–a time that would always stand out as a highlight in her life.

These years were in the early to mid-1950’s, when America was growing past the deep intrusion of World War II into a society of constantly expanding frontiers. Mary’s dairyman father, Elmer Townsend, had retired from the Townsend West Dairy several years earlier.  He and Merle now lived in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Every summer they would journey north to connect with old friends and relatives, which always included memorable visits in Keezletown.

Elmer was a quiet, patient man whose Quaker roots permeated his relationships–especially with Paul.  During his visits they would sit in the yard, where he told Paul stories and, and planted a respectful admiration for God’s creation.

All of these things were essential diversions–pieces of Mary’s life-puzzle that filled important gaps amidst the demands of parenting two special-needs children.  They were touches of the “ordinary” in an “extraordinary” life.

Mary was always conscious of the change of direction she had experienced when, after Paul’s birth, she had turned every dimension of life over to God.  Her central focus was finding ways to help Paul reach beyond his physical limitations.  She knew in her spirit that God had a plan for his life, and her job was to help him discover and assemble the pieces of his own life-puzzle.

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

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