When she celebrates her 103rd birthday this week, Mary Peterson expects to be singing.
In a way, it's part of the secret to how the Mountain View centenarian has stayed sharp and spry all these years. Peterson, who is quite possibly the city's oldest resident, still keeps an active social life of choral singing, church and various social groups.
Up until recent years, she was serving lunch at the Mountain View Senior Center, calling out the numbers at the weekly bingo game and bowling with a club of other women. She can't quite handle a bowling ball as of late, due to a back injury, but she still has an enviable number of friends in the community. With a proud smile, she describes the stack of Christmas cards she received in recent weeks, sort of like how a fisherman might boast about his latest catch.
"It's wonderful to be alive, but I do keep asking the Lord why he keeps me around," Peterson said. "But my life has been great. I'm very grateful."
For Peterson's longevity, it certainly helps that she has never once touched alcohol or cigarettes. She never had any children, but her extended family has multiplied like crazy over the years. She counts them up: 13 nieces and nephews, 20 great-nieces and nephews, 25 great-great-nieces and nephews. To all of them, she is known as "Aunt Mary."
Despite having so many relatives, Peterson doesn't have any family members who live close by. Her friend Edith Frost remembers becoming acquainted with Peterson when they partnered with some other church ladies on a bowling team called "the Holy Rollers." Frost remembers Peterson asking her a bold question: Would she take over power of attorney for her health care?
Frost agreed, but she had no idea what she was signing up for back in 1995. Ever the loyal friend, Frost still checks up on Peterson, taking her to medical appointments, helping her with budgeting and buying her groceries.
"Religiously, I feel like God has given me this job because she doesn't have anyone else," Frost said. "She needs somebody, and somebody she can trust."
Born Jan. 9, 1916, Peterson was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, the oldest of six children. She vividly recalls ice skating in the winters. She sang alto in a quartet with her two sisters and mother, while her father and brothers formed their own men's quartet. She ended up leaving school in ninth grade to help her mother after her father died in a work accident.
She originally moved to Mountain View with her husband following World War II, and in 1957 they built her current home in the St. Francis Acres neighborhood. Peterson worked for most of her years as an executive assistant for various professionals.
"Mountain View used to be such an itsy-bitsy city -- it was all single-story homes," she reminisced.
Talking about her childhood, Peterson immediately brings up Charles Schulz, the famous Peanuts comic strip cartoonist. Peterson's mother taught Schulz in Sunday school in Minnesota, and through the years she maintained a friendship with him. Schulz died in 2000, but Peterson still keeps in touch with his wife Jean.
In 2017, the Schulz home in Santa Rosa burned to the ground, and Peterson ended up donating a trove of old photos and cartoons to help Jean Schulz rebuild her collection. In gratitude, the Charles M. Schulz Museum sent Peterson an assortment of Peanuts memorabilia. Ornaments of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the other Peanuts characters are scattered throughout Peterson's house.
That sense of charity is also clear from Peterson's life in Mountain View. Her husband died in 1979, and Peterson became active in the Mid-Peninsula Widows and Widowers Association. To this day, Peterson still calls up each of the dozens of other members to sing "Happy Birthday" to them each year. She has organized several knitting parties to make caps for seniors in convalescent homes.
Getting old isn't easy, especially beyond 100, she said. Peterson misses being able to drive after she voluntarily surrendered her license a few years back. "It's terrible, now I have to deal with this thing," she said as she wobbled her walker. Writing letters by hand isn't so easy with her arthritis, but she makes it work with her old typewriter. But it has been hard for her to wind down.
"The constant thing in Mary's life is she's looking for something to do to help other people," Frost said. "What upsets her the most is now she's no longer allowed to do anything. The doctors tell her now it's time for her to rest."
But she still has her singing. When Peterson celebrates her 103rd birthday with her friends this week, she said she plans to enjoy leading the chorus of "Happy Birthday" on her own.