If she had it her way, 95-year-old former Hillsboro resident Mary Jean (Caldwell) Bell would not mind if time stood still for a while. But she knows that is not how it works, and that’s at least partly why she recently published her first book of poems and is planning another one.
Bell, who writes under the pen name of Tangerine, figures she was in the fourth grade at Hillsboro when she wrote her first poem.
“It was a silly poem about ‘a storm the other night that gave us quite a fright,’” she said this week from her current home in Kennett Square, Pa. “I thought I was going to be a great poet, but then I forgot about it.”
Still, books and reading remained an important part of her life. Then, during her retirement years in Florida she took a poetry writing class and says that lit a new fire.
She’s been writing poems ever since and not so long ago decided to gather them up and turn them into a book.
The 184-page “Tangerine: Poems at 94” (she turned 95 on Feb. 22) is currently available on Amazon for $9.95.
“I wanted to put them all in, but I had to choose,” she said. “Some of my best, I lost. But I hope to find them again. It’s poorly organized and doesn’t have a good index, but at least it’s out there, and some of the poems are good. I think some are really good.”
Bell said her mother, Nellie Caldwell, was a longtime subscriber to The Press Gazette, a forerunner to today’s Times-Gazette, and that her first job, when she was around 10, was reading to a blind man who lived next door to her home at 960 N. High St. in Hillsboro. She said she was paid 10 cents an hour and that the man she read to asked her to describe the pictures and made sure she read all the “community news” from the small villages in the county.
“I’m very grateful to the older residents of the town for making it such a pretty place and supporting the schools and making it a good place to live,” Bell said. “I was very fortunate to grow up in a place like that. I was there in 2014 and was very impressed. It’s still quite a great place.”
She was in the seventh grade, Bell said, when the former high school on West Main Street was completed. She said it was a beautiful building and that in the middle of the school year her classes were moved there.
“It was absolutely fireproof because it had asbestos everywhere,” Bell joked. “There was a beautiful old tree in front of the school, and I don’t know why, but there were so many places where you could find four-leaf clovers in the grass. It was fun to go find them sometimes.”
She remembers sliding down the bannisters, “doing other things they didn’t think seventh-graders would do,” climbing out on a narrow balcony in front of the library, and how the boys would visit the basement on the premise of watching the furnace being stoked, when sneaking a smoke was what they were really up to.
Her parents were Lewis and Nellie Caldwell. Her father died at a young age and her mother eventually served 12 years as the Highland County recorder.
While she was in high school, Bell won a scholarship from the English department at Wilmington College and it was there that she met her husband, Jim Bell, from Fayette County.
Over the years, the couple had four children and moved 27 times, Bell said, as Jim was stationed throughout the United States and Canada with the U.S. military. He eventually became an aerospace engineer with NASA, Boeing and Hughes, among others.
During that time, Bell decided she wanted to read the great books. She made a list that included Aristotle, Plato and books of the Bible. She and Jim even led a “great books group” in Cincinnati.
Later, when the couple retired to Florida, Bell helped found and served as president of Tomoka Poets in Volusia County, an organization that continues to thrive 32 years later.
Some of Bell’s poems had been published elsewhere over the years, and she had edited community bulletins and other publications, but in Florida she came into her own. As president, she helped the Tomoka Poets publish two books of poems written by members, the first as part of a conservation effort for a local landmark, the second, “Wildfire,” was topical, dealing with a rash of wildfires that caused significant damage throughout the area.
The group gave copies to firehouses and firefighters, Bell said, and donated proceeds to a firefighters’ fund. Several of Bell’s poems from “Wildfire” are included in “Poems at 94.”
Bell said there’s only one being who knows why she has lived so long so well, but added that it’s probably at least partly because she comes “from good Highland County stock.” She also said she was well fed, with milk and eggs being large staples of her early diet.
Offering some advice for local residents, Bell said, “I’d say it’s good to be considerate of other people’s opinion. Sometimes where you live forms your opinions, but if you travel you may learn there are other ways of looking at the same things.”
Bell said she “absolutely” plans to publish another book.
“I’m starting a new series on time and eternity,” Bell said. “We’d all like to live a long time, and maybe for eternity, but how do we spend today, which is part of eternity, too? We often want time to stand still so we can catch up and maybe get ahead, but that’s not the way it works.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or [email protected].