Centenarian: ‘I let God lead me’

Published 9:34 pm Thursday, May 25, 2017

Mrs. Mary Blanche Lawrence Bess is so old that there’s some debate as to how old she actually is.

Bess, a resident of the Hollywood neighborhood, celebrates her birthday today. That much is certain. But whether the candles on her cake should number 100 or 101 is uncertain.

An old family Bible showed Bess’ birthday as May 26, 1916. The Social Security Administration, too, had her birthdate recorded as 1916.

Email newsletter signup

But all other official documents say she was born on May 26, 1917.

Mary Blanche Lawrence Bess celebrates her birthday today, but nobody’s quite sure if she’s 100 or 101 years old. She is surrounded by, from left, her son-in-law, Larry Riddick, and daughter, Mary Riddick, and daughter-in-law, Gail Bess, and son, Alexander Bess Jr.

It doesn’t matter to Mrs. Bess. She’s celebrating today with her family anyway.

“It’s a big one,” she said of her family, looking at a collection of dozens of family photos framed on a wall across from her chair in the living room of her home.

She was one of six children born to Thad and Effie Lawrence in Nansemond County. Three brothers are deceased, but her brother, 97-year-old Tommie Lawrence Sr., lives next door, and her sister, 94-year-old Bertha L. Crocker, lives nearby.

Bess was married to Alexander Bess Sr. for 48 years until his death in 1989. They had two children, Alexander Bess Jr. and Mary B. Riddick. Bess has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Bess was educated at Nansemond Collegiate Institute and worked as a live-in housekeeper to pay for her education. She also worked as a line worker in a basket factory, a custodian, a babysitter and a store clerk. She cooked for the Nurney family of Suffolk, through whom she met many dignitaries including former governors, such as Chuckatuck native Mills Godwin.

In 1946, she and her husband, who served in the U.S. Army, purchased two lots for $500 in the Hollywood neighborhood. In 1948, they moved into the home her husband and his cousin built, and she has lived there ever since.

“She loves her neighbors,” said her daughter, Mary Riddick.

Bess attended the rally when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Suffolk at Peanut Park in 1963.

She was especially skilled at cooking, baking, pickling and wine making. Her hot rolls, cakes, brownies and smothered chicken were locally famous.

“She is adventuresome, and she’ll try anything once,” Riddick said of her mother. “She has no problem with trying new stuff.”

She loved colorful food and was known to see a recipe she liked in a magazine or newspaper and immediately go to the kitchen and start cooking it.

She loved to travel and took her first plane trip at 74 years old, when the Besses visited their daughter, at the time a Peace Corps volunteer, in the West African nation of Senegal.

“I didn’t stay long enough,” Bess said. “I wanted to stay longer. I enjoyed it, though.”

In 1988, she also visited the Central African Republic.

A breast cancer survivor since 2000, Bess enjoys reading and watching television these days, especially game shows and the home shopping channels, where she doesn’t have to follow a plot.

She’s hard of hearing but still has all of her wits, tons of personality and a sense of humor.

“I’m so thankful she’s able to exchange, so we can have an exchange,” Riddick said of making conversation with her mother.

“She’s the greatest thing in the world,” Alexander Bess Jr. said of his mother. “Through her training, I’m the person I am now.”

“She’s an encourager,” said her daughter-in-law, Gail Bess. “She always wants you to do well.”

Bess has been a lifelong member of Poplar Run Baptist Church and is a former choir member and pastor’s aid member. Her favorite Bible verse depends on the day, but it’s often Psalm 136:1 — “Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”
Bess credits her faith and right living for helping her live to 100 — or 101 — years old.

“I believe in doing the right thing,” she said. “I let God lead me.”