Catholic Herald Staff
Mary Francis (Popovich) Ree has lived almost her entire life in Mellen. A lifelong member of Holy Rosary Parish, she has been alive for 10 of the Diocese of Superior’s 11 bishops.
Sitting at the kitchen table in the home she has lived in since 1949, the centenarian said, “Some days I feel like I’m 110.”
Born on July 16, 1917, Ree celebrated her 101st birthday at the family’s annual Fourth of July gathering.
Asked what keeps her going, Ree – whose humor was apparent throughout the interview – responded without hesitation, “to the bathroom.” Neighbor Lori Janz, also present, added that Ree takes daily walks, spends a lot of time outdoors in all seasons and is on zero medications.
The pair bantered as Ree reminded her neighbor that she was still a little upset about the mailbox being moved. Her home is on a state highway; the mailbox was relocated so she wouldn’t have to cross the road to collect the mail.
Ree shared that, although she didn’t get her driver’s license until her mid-50s, she gave it up of her own volition at age 92. She didn’t’ want to hurt someone or herself.
“I chose it on my own, so no one would have to tell me when to quit,” she said, and admitted it is hard to be dependent on others for basic things like getting to the grocery store and church.
That doesn’t deter her from wanting to attend weekly Mass. Janz, who is Ree’s usual Sunday ride, said she hardly ever misses, “even if it’s snowing and blowing. She loves going to church.”
In Ree’s own words, she likes the peace, quiet and the sermons. She added that there are too many collections and not enough kids.
“I don’t know if it’s that there aren’t kids or the parents don’t bring the kids.”
She doesn’t do much else on Sunday, living what her parents taught, “Sunday is a day of rest, and to pray.”
Ree was born to immigrant parents, the oldest of 10 children. Her father, Alex, came from “the old country, Czechoslovakia.” He came over as an adult. Her mother, Anna, was also Czech and their marriage was arranged. Russian was the first language spoken at home. Ree learned some English from her mother, but mostly learned it once she started attending school. Foreign languages being frowned upon, the younger half of Ree’s siblings never learned their parents’ mother tongue.
However, various Russian traditions were maintained in the Popovich home, many associated with holidays. At Easter, baskets were made with paska, a traditional round loaf sweet bread that had a braided crust. These were brought to the church for the priests’ blessing before enjoying Easter meal at home.
At Christmastime, the family would join with others to sing Russian carols from house to house. They would walk the 2 miles to attend Midnight Mass, never owning a car. And on Jan. 7, Feast of the Epiphany, one would be rented for the trip to Cornucopia, where Russian Christmas would be celebrated at the Orthodox church.
Real wax candles were lit on their Christmas tree, above a blanket of straw reminiscent of Jesus’s manger in the stable. Ree noted, “Of course, we had to be careful so sparks wouldn’t fly, but we never had a fire.”
During the school year, the Popovich children would meet up with friends walking to and from the Mellen School. For the lunch hour, they would eat the sandwich their mother had packed and enjoy a “cup of warm cocoa” purchased with the nickel she included.
Graduating from high school in 1935, Ree said their class of 50 was one of Mellen’s largest. She remembers the town being pretty busy in those days, with most men employed by the mills.
Her own father worked in the lumber camps and would be gone for a few weeks at a time.
“We were always excited when he was coming (home) because he brought us sugar donuts. My mother was a good baker, but there was nothing like Dad’s donuts.”
The Popovich home – with “lots of feet under the table” – didn’t have electricity until 1945.
When asked what they did for fun as children, she let out a hearty laugh.
“Fun? Our parents had a garden, so we had to pick rocks! And potato bugs … It wasn’t very exciting, I can tell you that.”
Having met through a friend, Mary and John Ree wed in September 1948. When John passed away at the age of 91, they had been married for just over 50 years.
The couple made their livelihood raising mink; carefully selecting, breeding and growing their herd up to 2,000. Buyers would come from Minneapolis-St. Paul to buy pelts, which were then sent to New York. They did most of the work themselves. Mary’s primary job was the watering, at least once or twice a day, seven days a week.
She confessed being somewhat upset when her husband wouldn’t let her work outside the home. “You’ve got those kids to take care of,” he’d say. She figured they could use the extra money. But when neighbors and friends would comment on the unpleasant smell of the live mink, John would say, “They smell like money to me.”
The Rees had two children, a daughter and a son, who both live out of state. There are four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren in the family. She usually spends Christmas with her daughter in Texas, even making the trip by Amtrak last year.
Janz pointed out that she doesn’t like to stay longer than a few weeks. Ree admitted she can’t stand the heat and she doesn’t mind the snow, jesting that it is probably because of her Russian blood.
A neighbor since 1986, Janz visits daily and is always offered refreshments while they chat.
“Nobody comes here without being offered a cup of coffee and some baked goods,” she said. Ree smiled and said she makes sure to have something in case someone stops by.
Respectful of the self-sufficiency Ree relishes, the couple lend their help whenever and however their neighbor needs, although at times with much persuasion.
Janz noted that Ree was 92 when they finally convinced her to stop shoveling snow off the roof; it was only this year that she asked for help planting and maintaining her vegetable garden and perennial beds. For years, Holy Rosary’s altar flowers have often come from Ree’s gardens.
Ree provided and arranged the flowers for Janz’s wedding from the home’s gardens. For years, she would make dozens and dozens of pine bough Christmas wreaths, cutting back only recently to just making one for her own front door, one for her neighbors and one to mail to each of her children.
Picking rocks took on new meaning for Ree when her husband and grandchildren would bring home pails and pails of rocks from Little Girl’s Point, near Saxon Harbor. She recounted that “he never wanted to go any place, but when the grandkids came and wanted to pick rocks he got excited.”
He would then choose select rocks, and with cement create flower bed borders, plant stands and simple animal statues. Multiple grottoes were also constructed and line the front yard housing various statues.
One of Ree’s favorites is the one for the St. Joseph statue they were given when the old church was closed in 1976; the new church was built from the ground up on another site.
With a sharp and articulate memory, and clear – though at times paused – speech, Ree was happy to share her husband’s handiwork. She still finds herself looking to “John’s corner” in the living room. And though her neighbor pointed out that Ree rarely uses a cane, when she does she uses one of her husband’s – who was 10 years her senior – and affectionately calls it “John.”
Ree enjoys taking “John” for a walk. She also enjoys listening to public radio and watching Wheel of Fortune, though she doesn’t care for the news.
Conceding that some days in life are not easy, Ree said there are “lots of them, and you’ve got lots more coming … I gotta move, so I move. I don’t want to sit too long and get petrified.”
She did not flinch at a question about death, and if she is afraid of leaving this life behind.
“No, I’m ready anytime,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I’ll go right now, I don’t care – good-bye,” and she motioned her hand as if to wave farewell.
“I don’t regret any of my life, but life’s too fast for me now. I can’t keep up anymore. I like the older days better … when people took time to be with people.”