Mrs. Elliott was the oldest person I have ever personally known. She moved to Athens when in her 90s to live with her son and daughter-in-law, the Richard Hourdequins. Up to that point she had lived as a widow on her own on Saint Simon’s Island. There was an initial connection between our parishes not only in our use of the traditional prayer book, but also in that Mrs. Elliott’s former rector at Christ Church, Father Tom Fitzgerald, was the father of a Saint Stephen’s parishioner, Martha Grey Fitzgerald Thomason. In any case, Mrs. Elliott settled in happily with Saint Stephen’s. She was very regular in her Sunday attendance, wrote frequent letters and notes to the clergy, attended Mass on Wednesdays when she could get a ride, and eventually celebrated her 100th, 101st, 102nd, 103rd, and 104th birthdays as a parishioner. She delighted in holding the newly christened babies: the oldest and the newest parishioners together.
Mrs. Elliott was born in Summit, NJ, in 1890, the child of a railroad executive. She attended good private schools and lived as people of her class did in those days. Her brother studied dance with Isadora Duncan, they knew the Auchinclosses, and in due course Mary Sims was wed to Remy Hourdequin, a ‘scientific farmer’. A child, Richard, was born, and all went well until Remy ‘took up archery’. This hobby, for some reason that was not well explained to me and concerning which it seemed best not to inquire closely, was the end of the marriage. Later Mary Sims Hourdequin married Mr. Elliott, whose death she long survived and who seemed less memorable than the archer, Remy Hourdequin.
Mrs. Elliott was a self-published author of verse, collections of letters to prominent leaders (of the ‘See here, young man’ sort), and of music (including one piece that featured a passage in every key). She was a sweet and very cheerful soul, who believed that direct mail fundraising letters were personal communications. She was flattered by attention from so many national leaders. She loved her family, her Church, and her country. She was concerned about the decline of the important bat population and many other matters, major and minor.
Mrs. Elliott was raised an Episcopalian but left that Church in the 1960s to join a small group called the Anglican Orthodox Church, led by one James Parker Dees. Around the same time she was active in the John Birch Society. Later in life her Church and political commitments moved into somewhat more mainstream channels, but she still retained the rather conspiratorial views of a John Bircher. She was the first person I knew personally who was very exercised by fluoridation of the tap water, which I believe was once a great object for Bircher conspiracy theorizing.
Mrs. Elliott was blessed with a son and daughter-in-law who loved her and cared for her well though they themselves were elderly. Nonetheless, in her last six months or so of life she had to go to a nursing home, as her care needs grew too great for the family to provide. Once when visiting Mrs. Elliott I came upon an Asian attendant, who was tranquilly brushing her hair. The two women seemed pleasantly engaged and chatting. When the aide saw me she politely said, ‘Mrs. Elliott, I will let you visit with your priest,’ and quietly left the room after some mutual smiles and little waves and billings-and-cooings. To my very great surprise, as soon as the door was shut, Mrs. Elliott said to me, ‘She is a Chinese Communist spy!’ I was taken aback by this very confident assertion and said, ‘Now Mrs. Elliott, why would the Chinese Communists want to send a spy to a nursing home?’ The reply was perfectly logical and completely nuts: ‘Because no one will suspect!’
Despite the occasional outcropping of naïveté or conspiracy theory, Mrs. Elliott was a bright and charming parishioner. She came to church for some years with another scion of the old northeastern WASP ascendancy, Harry Adam Woolever, Jr., whom she called ‘dear Harry’ and whom Father Parsons called ‘Armed Forces Radio’, due to his habit before Sunday Mass of loudly whispering about ‘the Jerries’ and the importance of keeping one’s cool in battle. One day my sister was driving on the perimeter road around Athens, going ten miles or so over the speed limit of 55 miles per hour. As she drove she was passed by a car as if she were standing still. A short while ahead both cars slowed and then were stopped by a traffic jam, with the passing car now immediately in front of my sister. She realized that the demon driver ahead of her was Mr. Woolever and that the little person in the passenger seat was Mrs. Elliott: the average age in the car being well over 90, which also was roughly their speed. I thought Mrs. Elliott a bit unwise to use Harry as her driver but said nothing. Some weeks later she said to me, ‘I have decided not to drive any more with dear Harry. I think he may not be very safe.’ Indeed. In this and other ways the little old lady in tennis shoes was shrewder than might appear at first.
In 1992 the parish observed the tenth anniversary of its founding with a visit from the patron of the English Prayer Book Society, Charles Melvin St. Hill Hanbury-Tracy, the seventh Baron Sudeley. Lord Sudeley was introduced to Mrs. Elliott and told that she was 102 years old. ‘Good heavens!,’ he said: ‘I’ve never before met anyone 100 years old.’ Mrs. Elliott immediately answered, ‘And I’ve never met member of the House of Lords!’ Both were quite pleased by the encounter.
Mrs. Elliott was an enthusiastic participant in a University of Georgia study of centenarians. She illustrated very well the basic conclusions of the study. Those conclusions were that centenarians almost all seemed to share two main characteristics. First, most of them are actively engaged and involved in an interest beyond themselves such as a hobby, church, or politics. Secondly, almost all centenarians are adept at dealing with loss, death, and tragedy: an ability to take the blow, sorrow appropriately for it, but then put it aside and move on. Mrs. Elliott, with her keen interest in Church and politics and many other matters, and her long life of surviving the loss of loved ones, fit the description very well indeed.