My grandmother and I were born one day and forty-seven years apart, so each year we would wish each other Happy Birthday.
Somehow, though, I always got the better end of the deal, because she would unfailingly send me a check.
Mary Emma Whatley led an extraordinary life. Born on June 11, 1899 to parents who, as 19th century pioneers, had migrated from Georgia and Alabama to Texas following the devastation wreaked by Sherman’s army in 1864, she would grow up yearning to give to the world talents she inherently but unknowingly possessed. Nothing much happened in the tiny rural community of Palo Pinto, Texas, where she grew up, so she would climb to the tower of the old stone courthouse and gaze longingly toward the horizon, determined to see what lay beyond—and to make her mark in the world.
In her 18th year, she travelled by train to Georgia in order to meet the family that her grandfather, S. J. S. Abernathy, had left behind back in 1881. On that trip she interviewed a brother of S. J. S., who shared an interesting story. Uncle Dave told her that “On the night before the Battle of Gettysburg, me and my two companions were seated around our campfire discussing our chances of surviving the battle the next day. One was convinced he wouldn’t make it. The second thought he would survive.” Then Uncle Dave said he felt an uncanny shudder in his heart. Next morning as the battle was getting underway, this great-uncle placed his Bible inside his uniform coat just over his heart. Then, as the fighting raged, a Yankee soldier surprised him, aiming and firing his musket-loaded rifle directly at Uncle Dave’s heart. The Minnie ball struck the Bible and ricocheted into and shattered his arm. It is a well-known statistic of the American Civil War that one in eight soldiers lost limbs fighting those bloody battles. The rest of the story is that his companions were correct: one survived and the other did not.
This story would have impressed my grandmother, who a few years later would marry a handsome Scotsman only to bury him two years into their marriage. Jimmy Dunbar had left Scotland with two brothers to take up ranching in South Africa before migrating to Canada. In a small town near Winnipeg he set about running a newspaper. Sadly during her pregnancy, her beloved husband became increasingly ill with sleeping sickness which he must have contracted from the bite of a tsetse fly in Africa. The disease as it advances attacks the central nervous system resulting in seizures, confusion, slurred speech and if untreated, in death. Witnessing the deterioration in her husband’s health as she sat by his bedside, Jimmy, in one of his lucid moments not long before he passed away, muttered: “Ah, Lassie. What will become of ye? What will become of ye?”
His death on February 8, 1923, left my grandmother unwilling to continue her life. Alone in a foreign land, bereft of marketable education, and inexperienced in any employment, she lay heartbroken but very pregnant across her bed. Staring up at the ceiling of her room, she was astonished to see the spirit of Jimmy Dunbar descending toward her through a globe of light. As he gazed lovingly and tenderly at her, he spoke words of reassurance that would see her through her long life: “Ah, Lassie, ye will be just fine! Ye will be just fine!”
Seven weeks later on the 30th of March she gave birth to my mother. Rousing herself afterwards, Grandmother Mer took over her husband’s newspaper, which meant doing all the things consistent with such work: finding, reporting and publishing newsworthy events, buying and maintaining inventory, managing the payables, and convincing a chauvinist male population to buy ads from her. After making a success of this venture, she moved back to her roots, where she would eventually purchase and run The Palo Pinto Star for a number of years.
In 1941 she married Joe Clarke. He was a banker from Albany, Texas, who courted her for about a decade while he cared for his elderly mother. When he accepted a position as Executive Vice President of the Fort Worth National Bank in 1946, she continued her writing career as a roving reporter for the Cattleman Magazine. As an historian whose passion for 19th century pioneers propelled her to write histories of those times, she would author and see published eight works from 1956 to 1984.
As a couple, Joe and Mary Whatley Clarke were prominent citizens and active civically in the community. While Joe was elected to various executive posts in important organizations and Mary served thousands of hours as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital, they helped organize the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the Jewel Charity Ball which raised more than $9 million for the Children’s Medical Center. In their long years together, they faithfully attended the city’s Presbyterian Church.
Morally upright, honest, trustworthy, compassionate, unbiased and steadfast in their loyalty to Christ and in their many services to better the human condition, their actions mirrored an unshakeable faith. They would have joyously affirmed these words of Baha’u’llah:
We testify that when He (Jesus Christ) came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of the sinner sanctified. … He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 86.
In their senior years they travelled extensively in the world so they could experience other cultures and meet other peoples. During those years “Mer” would send me postcards from the various countries they visited. On their trip to Israel, where Joe snapped a picture on Mt. Carmel of the golden-domed Shrine of the Bab, they would have beheld the redemptive power so cherished by them in their worship of the one true God.
When Joe dropped dead of a heart attack on one of their Sunday treks to church, Mer survived the shock and characteristically carried on for the remaining 19 years of her life. Upon her passing in 1990, Texas State Senators stood and observed a moment of silence out of respect for her memory.
Whatever Jimmy Dunbar saw from the other side, Grandmother Mer’s life really was “just fine,” for she embodied these words of Abdu’l-Baha:
God is the helper of those souls whose aim is to serve humanity and whose efforts and endeavors are devoted to the good and betterment of all mankind. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 448.