Mary Magdalene Smith entered the world on May 19, 1921 in Claremont, Virginia. Named after her mother, she was the first girl born to her parents, Gratnie and “Maggie“ Smith, after a string of four older boys. Eventually, the Smith family would include several more children for a total of 10 (out of 13 born) who would survive infancy and childhood. As the oldest girl, Mary functioned as a second-in-command to her mother so that throughout her life, she was an outstanding cook; a strict disciplinarian (“Sergeant Searles”) to her younger siblings, nieces, and nephews; and the auntie with a heart of gold who would do anything to assist and advance her extended family.
In racially segregated, “Jim Crow” Virginia, Mary’s parents were poor, but hardworking with aspirations for a better life. The family lived sometimes in Hopewell, where Mary’s father had a job in one of the chemical plants there and sometimes in Claremont on the family farm. During the hard times of the Great Depression, the family relocated to New York State after Mary’s mother was offered a summer job as a maid at the Flagler Hotel in South Fallsburg. Mary was about 17 at the time of this move. The teenage Mary along with the entire family resided at first in Harlem while her parents began saving money to purchase a home in the Catskills. Mary graduated from Wadleigh High School in Manhattan in 1940. After the war, she worked at an apron-making factory in Manhattan while living in the Bronx with her younger, married sister, Naomi.
In the 1950s while on a trip to Phoenix, Arizona to visit a friend, she met, fell in love with, and married Jehovah Ray who predeceased her. Mary remarried to Moses Searles after returning to New York State from Arizona and moving to the Catskills. Until her retirement, she worked at several local places: Inter-county Farmers Cooperative Association, the Woodridge Steam Laundry, Bresky’s Poultry Slaughtering and Processing, and for Sullivan ARC/Crystal Run when it had a location in South Fallsburg. She also was a licensed beautician who had a salon in South Fallsburg, and a local volunteer Ambulance Squad member.
Mary and Moses shared a love of country life. They regularly took vacations returning either to her native, rural Claremont, Virginia or his rural South Carolina birthplace and hoped to retire in some country part of the South until Moses’ death prevented this. She was an excellent preparer of dishes featuring the fresh game Moses hunted in the fall and the fresh vegetables from the garden they were known for cultivating each spring and summer at the South Fallsburg home. She liked to experiment with new recipes featuring squash blossoms, rhubarb, and other crops from their garden. At Thanksgiving, her roast duck, stuffing, sweet potato pie, and apple pie were legendary for their scrumptious taste. She was also famous within the extended family for her famous Christmas Day breakfasts—huge, country spreads featuring bacon, sausage, barbeque ribs, scrapple, fried chicken, eggs, apple turnovers, biscuits, cracklin’ cornbread, and even more!
Mary was a quiet, supportive presence. At family gatherings, after preparing most or all of the meal, she stayed in the background—never sitting down but choosing to stand at the threshold of the dining room like a servant, carefully observing everyone else eat. Then after noticing that your plate was empty, she’d ask, “Can I get you some more?” A careful saver, she helped others in need—whether it was helping a nephew buy his first car, giving away a car, or driving a niece to a college interview.
Mary liked to travel within the United States and abroad. She visited Hawaii in 1989 and took an extended trip to the Holy Land (Israel and Egypt) in 1969 with her sister, Naomi. After retirement, she immensely enjoyed taking trips with the Senior Citizens group of South Fallsburg.
Mary was an active church worker in the First Church of God in South Fallsburg, where she served as church secretary and treasurer. She was a Sunday School teacher known for her favorite song, “Our Best,” which encouraged children to strive for excellence in every worthy undertaking. She was proud of her longevity. Never shy about sharing her age, she loved having birthday parties for herself. At Mother’s Day services at her church, she always beamed with delight to be named the oldest mother in the congregation.
Mary was predeceased by her parents, Gratnie and Maggie Smith; husband, Moses Searles; daughter, Mary Renee Ray; several siblings: Naomi Haywood, Rachel Graham, Alfred Smith, Rome Smith, Lloyd Smith, Minor Smith, Cosby Smith, Mattie Lucille Smith, and Harold Miller Smith; four brothers-in-law: George Haywood, Theophilus Battle, Edward Graham, Sr., and Frank Young. She is survived by her sisters: Bethsheba Young and Orpha Battle; and a host of nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, great-great nieces, and great-great nephews. Her family and friends will miss her even as they rejoice that she is at long last with her Heavenly Father, receiving her eternal reward. “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
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