BRANDON — Mary Jane Harris, who died June 5 at 89, didn't claim to know whether her family had helped avert a tragedy. She only knew that again and again, tragedy visited her family.
In 1970, while they lived in Orlando, her son died in a underwater diving accident. Lucien Harris IV was 17. Mrs. Harris and her husband, banker Lucien Harris III, took stock.
"I think they realized that life is short, and there they were in this corporate existence, doing a lot of dinner parties," said daughter Laura Harris. "After my brother's death, it just seemed superficial."
Her husband quit his job and never looked back. The couple bought a house in Highlands, N.C., where they grew vegetables and devoted themselves to their art work. His paintings sold well, and her stitcheries were bought by private collectors.
The Harrises moved to Brandon in 1995. A year later, Lucien III died of colon cancer.
Mrs. Harris never talked much about her losses. "In our family we suck it up and move furniture around," Laura Harris said. "It's how we deal with grief. We take on projects."
In September 2001, Mrs. Harris embarked on one such project after her daughter, Mary Maroney, announced she felt a "strong need" to send "Miraculous Medals" to all members of Congress. The medals, conceived from the vision of a 19th century French saint, are stamped with the image of the Virgin Mary and are thought by some to convey blessings.
The women spent all day addressing around 535 envelopes for senators and representatives, plus one for President George W. Bush. They were blessed by a priest and mailed to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 5, 2001.
"I always wondered if that had anything to do with the plane not hitting Congress," said Laura Harris, referring to United Airlines Flight 93, the only plane not to hit its target on Sept. 11.
Loss struck the family again in 2006, when Mary Maroney died of breast cancer.
Born Mary Jane Gentry in Birmingham, Ala., Mrs. Harris graduated from the University of Georgia, then lived in New York for several years before her marriage.
Tiny (4 feet 10) and tough, Mrs. Harris enjoyed listening to opera, reading British humorist P.G. Wodehouse and watching Fox News. She supported the conservative Heritage Foundation and believed the country might be headed for economic ruin.
"She was always the sharpest tack in the room," her daughter said.
Her thoughts on President Barack Obama?
"She believed he was a good speaker."
Mrs. Harris was a stickler for grammar, and honesty.
"She used to say, 'There is no such thing as people who are very honest. You are either honest or you are not.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.