Howard Harris was used to getting calls from his grandmother’s nursing home.
One day, it was because the staff had called the sheriff’s office about her. He needed to come. Harris made it to his car, but then the nursing home called back. The police had told them they would not be coming to apprehend a 101-year-old woman in a wheelchair.
Marion Washington didn’t remember what she said to get everyone worked up, but the staff was bothering her and she wanted to go home and promised to have everyone arrested. Some colorful language might have worked its way into the fussing, too.
“We called her a force of nature,” Harris said. “She was a tough little woman.”
Washington, a longtime resident of Progress Village in Hillsborough County, died Nov. 5. These are some of the stories her grandsons shared about her life.
A man from Georgia
Washington was born in her family’s home in Coleman, a city in central Florida. They moved to South Florida, where she made it through the eighth grade and worked in the fields cutting sugar cane.
After moving to Tampa, she met Samuel Murray, a well-dressed man who charmed her and, she’d later find out, a lot of other women.
Washington found work as a housekeeper for the family of a prominent lawyer.
She was pregnant with her first child when Murray didn’t come home one night. When he showed up in the morning, he claimed he’d been at his mother’s house, caring for her all night as she neared death.
“And so she said, ‘OK, maybe I’ll go look in on her tomorrow,’” Harris said. “And his mother was fine.”
The next day, he went missing again, and a friend told Washington where she could find Murray.
She found him and tried to shoot him, but the gun was too big. Murray got away and stayed away.
Years later when telling the story, Washington would end with this:
“I’m glad I didn’t hit him, because my life would be different today.”
Washington continued field work when she could, and every year around harvest time, extra workers came from out of state. One day, a truckload of men from Georgia showed up, and Washington turned to a friend and vowed to get a man from Georgia.
“And that guy ended up being who I knew as my grandfather,” Harris said.
Booker T. Washington towered over his new wife. His calm tempered her fire. He devoted himself to her and their family, and together they raised their two children, Ethel and Booker Bernard. They later bought a house in Progress Village, where Washington stayed after her husband’s death in 1983, vowing never to leave the house that “Booker bought me.”
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She saw generations grow up on 88th Street.
“She was like a neighborhood watchman,” said friend and neighbor Eloise Griffin.
Neighborhood kids knew if their ball went in Washington’s yard, it became her ball. They also knew if she’d baked muffins, she’d be sharing them with everyone.
The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now
One day, Washington took her daughter to work. Ethel was a teenager, unsure what she wanted to do with her life. Her mother started making beds, cleaning, cooking and doing the laundry, and Ethel found the home’s library.
She grabbed a book, sat down and started reading.
“What are you doing?” Washington said when she found her daughter. “You’re supposed to be helping me.”
“And my mother looked at her and said ‘Mom, I know I don’t want to do this kind of work, so I know I’m going to college,’’' Harris said. “I think that was my grandmother’s way of showing my mother what direction she should be taking.”
As he grew up, Keith Harris started sharing his ups and downs with his grandmother. Her response was often this:
“Well, let me tell you something, son, you live long enough, you’re going to go through some things.”
She taught him that as long as you’re alive, you are made for whatever it is you’re facing, Harris said.
And she was grateful, her grandsons said, for every day she lived.
When someone came to help her, after a bit of resisting, she’d often sing them her favorite song, The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.
Washington did not care for questions about her age. But when someone asked what she’d done to live so long, she gave the same answer, grandson Howard Harris said.
“She would always point skyward and say, ‘He takes care of me every day.’”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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