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Retirement - Success Stories

Mary Keogh Age - 83
Mary Keogh
As I sat and talked with Mary Keough in her immaculate apartment, her parakeet chirping in the background, I felt as I did when I would visit my grandmother. A person who’s motto was “A place for everything and everything in its place”. But life didn’t start out so neat and tidy for Mary.

Mary was born in Hartford 83 years ago and immediately after birth was placed in an orphanage operated by nuns. Both of her parents died young and she had no other family besides a brother. But, “My brother I only saw twice and never more.”

Mary reported that the nuns were “very nice” but one day, without any explanation, she was put in a car and driven to Mansfield training School. She would live there for the next 36 years.

“It was terrible, like a jail…with locked doors and people looking at you through windows. They had a dormitory with about 30 people there and we all shared one bathroom, we all showered at the same time, went to bed at the same time. I worked hard too, taking care of people, feeding them, cleaning the dorms, mopping floors. I worked from 6 to 6 and never got paid.”

“One day a man, a psychologist, said to me ‘Mary, you don’t belong here. I’m going to try to help you get out.’  Instead of being happy about this Mary said, “I was scared. I had never been anyplace else.”

Eventually, Mary moved to Seaside in Waterford “where they used to have TB people live before they opened it for us. Every week I got $10 for the work we did; making beds, washing floors. They took us out to the store to spend the money. I couldn’t believe it.” Besides just working at Seaside Mary said “I taught myself to read from the newspaper. I would ask people when I didn’t know a word. I passed the fourth grade but didn’t have school after that. I taught myself quite a bit by asking people things, listening to people talk. I learned to write by watching people and practicing. I met some good people there that helped me a lot.”

After a decade or more at Seaside and another group placement, Mary got an opportunity to live in a Community Companion Home. But she said “it wasn’t working out” for her so Mary chose to live in a Boarding Home in Norwich which allowed her much more freedom in her community. “I walked everywhere and talked to people.”

One day Mary stopped at the Eastern Savings Bank to open an account. There she met a “very nice woman, Lenore”. They struck up a conversation and Mary started stopping by every day to talk with her. After a going there frequently for a while, “I asked them for a job, which I got. I stuffed envelopes, changed the desk calendars, got coffee. I didn’t get a paycheck but they paid me with ‘BB Bucks’ every week.” BB Bucks were certificates to use at the local ‘BB’ grocery store. “I went to all their holiday parties and picnics. I won a lot of the prizes at them. They threw me birthday parties.”

Lenore retired and moved to Maine. After she moved, “the bank would buy me bus tickets every year to go see her and Mr. Fredrickson, the bank VP, would drive me to and from the bus station. I worked at the bank for 20 years.” Mary continues to go to Lenore’s sister, Gail’s home in Preston every holiday.

But that wasn’t the only opportunity Mary created for herself. As a frequent customer at Lindi’s Little Supermarket she would occasionally “wash pots and pans for all the food I could eat and discounted cigarettes. I worked there many years.” Mary also worked with Easter Seals for several years before retiring from there in the ‘90s.

It was at a planning meeting when Mary was 61 years old that she was asked “If you could have one thing in the world what would it be?” She replied that she wanted her own apartment. After a lifetime of living with others she wanted a place she could call her own. “I interviewed three different agencies and picked Guide. I moved here 12 years ago.” She had lived in a few different apartments before her current one. “The bank (Eastern Savings) bought all my furniture for me. I get homemaker supports and residential supports.”

I asked Mary if she had any advice to offer to those seeking a more self-directed life and she gave me two important pieces.
  1. Have goals and keep them. “I always wanted my own place to live.”
  2. Treat everyone like a friend and you will have many friends. “I make friends easy. Friends have helped me. I had an 80th birthday party and lots of people came. It was great.”
The friends Mary made in her community have been an important part of her life. The year she moved into her apartment friends of hers donated tickets to Disney World. Her friends at the bank surprised her with the fact that they had started a bank account for her to enable to afford to go. But, as it turned out, she didn’t like it as much as she thought she would. “I didn’t know anyone there.”