A Texas Native, Adapting To Water Valley Came Easy For Mary Lou
Mary Lou Williams is all energy. She describes herself as an optimistic and self-described “pollyanna” for her entire life. As we sit at her kitchen table, Mary Lou tells me that “life is so beautiful and wonderful” while she sips from the tall glass full of diet cola and taps her red-painted fingers. Since her stroke three years ago, Mary Lou has cut back on sugar and salt and given up smoking, but she’s barely slowed down.
“I’m glad I smoked,” she tells me, in one of the blunt non-sequiters that mark our conversation. “I’ve never met a smoker that’s critical, because we know what it’s like to have a monkey on our back.”
Mary Lou Williams is known for her friends, her energy, and her dog, whom she has trained with Spanish commands. Born and raised in San Angelo, Texas, she grew up hearing Spanish from the elevator men as she rode up and down in the afternoons, waiting for her lawyer father to finish work.
Spanish came naturally to her, and when her first husband died at the age of twenty-four from Hodgkin’s disease, she moved home with her two young children and taught the language for two years at San Angelo College.
Then, at a wedding, she met Snooky Williams. In 1958, Snooky and Mary Lou married and he brought her and her children home to Water Valley. “He got the whole package,” Mary Lou says, speaking of Snooky, “and he loved us.”
Despite being raised in a city, Mary Lou found Water Valley an easy place to call home. “This is such an accepting town,” she says, and pins me with her big green eyes. “Haven’t you found it so?”
I agree that I have indeed, and I can’t stop smiling as I try to steer the conversation back to her. “So you and Snooky worked together at the department store?” I ask.
“After Ben was born and went to school,” she says, “I began working down at the store, doing the clerking and book-keeping. Snooky ran everything else.” Stubb’s Department Store operated until 1986.
“Women would come from all over north Mississippi,” Mary Lou says. “We carried all sizes, up to gargantuan.” She sips her cola. “I often wonder where those women get their bras now; we used to carry really big ones,” and she holds her hands wide.
In 1978, the Williams bought the Everett Cock Insurance Agency, and Mary Lou began to spend her afternoons working across the street keeping books. “It’s interesting how people treat you,” she says. “In the store, I’d be Mary Lou, and on the east side of street at the agency, I’d be Mrs. Williams.” Despite the discrepancy, Mary Lou speaks fondly of her time in the store. I loved working,” she says. “I never knew what I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do, but I ended up loving what I did.”
Snooky and Mary Lou closed down the insurance agency in 2000, and then stepped down from their respective posts as Chairman of the Board at Mechanics Bank and Chairman of the Board at Blackmur Memorial Library two years later.
“I didn’t want to retire,” Mary Lou says. “Snooky dragged me kicking and screaming.” She smiles. “He’s always right, and I resent it mightily.”
She spends her time now gardening, keeping up with friends and relatives, walking their dog (Pedro Gonzalez) out by Enid Lake, and reading history and forensic mystery novels.
“Don’t you think those are gory?” I ask, and she shakes her head.
“Dying is a part of life,” she says. “Sometimes it’s quick, and that’s wonderful. I stay away from doctors,” she tells me. “Every time someone I knew went to one, they got cut, and then they died.” She taps her nails and fixes me with those round eyes. “I decided I will stay away, and keep my body parts.” Mary Lou tells me that she even avoids taking aspirin, and then discusses mood-altering medicines like Valium. “I think it’d be nice if everyone were happy, but without drugs– that’s the trick.”
While she’s dispensing advice, I ask her about the secret to marriage. The Williams have kept their affection for each other through 49 years of matrimony, and in this time of ever-increasing divorce rates, this seems remarkable to me.
Mary Lou says, “A second marriage is a wonderful thing. You know what you have, and you know to be grateful. As for divorce, I think that mainly when the people made a promise, they didn’t keep it.” She looks up and opens her eyes even wider. “I’m not talking about abuse or anything– that would be get the hell out of Dixie.”
I finally find a subject Mary Lou is not willing to discuss when I ask about the Snooky and Mary Lou Williams Foundation. “Jim Dees made that up when we sponsored Thacker,” she says. “We do give because we’ve been so blessed, but we don’t talk about it.” She changes the subject with dexterity. “I wish everyone I knew were happy,” she says, and then points to the humming bird hovering outside the kitchen window. “And I wish everyone I knew had humming birds. Doesn’t that just lift you up?”
I have to agree.
(Editor’s Note: Snooky and Mary Lou were the recipients of the 2007 Braswell Hatcher Service Award).