Mary was born on December 8, 1943 in Chicago to Carl and Evelyn Johnson. Evelyn had longed to be a mother from the time she was a child herself, and was delighted, as she put it, to “play house” with her new husband and baby. Christmas for the Johnson’s that year was “Mary” indeed.
The family expanded twenty months later when sister Margaret came along, and five years after that with brother Tom.
The Early Years
When Mary was 5 her father moved the family to a distant suburb in the country – Wilmette. Back then, Wilmette was mostly corn fields and narrow, unpaved roads where the family could safely roam and explore.
God and His Word featured heavily into Mary’s upbringing, and both of her parents modeled a victorious Christian life. Family devotions and Bible reading were a daily occurrence in her home. Weekly Sunday school attendance at Moody Church, Pioneer Girls, and the church camp reinforced what she learned at home. These activities bore spiritual fruit, and one Sunday morning at the age of 9, Mary accepted Christ as her Savior and Lord.
Growing up Mary was a shy child, a homebody at heart. She was also a tomboy. In fact, every day when Mary came home from school, she quickly exchanged her dress for jeans, cowboy boots, and a plaid shirt. Then, while she watched Roy Rogers and Gene Autry on TV, she straddled the hassock and rode along with her cowboy heroes.
One Saturday afternoon when Mary was ten, she and a neighbor friend, Peter decided to build a camp fire. After having trouble getting the fire lit, Peter had the bright idea to get a little help from his dad’s gasoline can. He splashed gas on the sticks and branches but also accidentally soaked Mary’s jeans. With one match the whole thing burst into flames, including her pants.
Peter raced to Mary’s house, bursting through the kitchen door screaming, “Mary’s on fire!” Her dad raced for the door, grabbing a rug to smother the fire, not knowing what he’d find.
As the family ran out of the house, there came Mary, whimpering and hobbling toward home, her jeans still smoking and charred black. She had wisely rolled in a nearby mud puddle, putting out the flames.
Though Mary endured two operations, several skin grafts, and a month in the hospital, she thankfully lived through what could have been a fatal accident. It was during the hospital stay that she became fascinated by what went on in the hospital. Much later this fascination would play into a career decision.
She also proved she was good in a crisis, a skill she would use again and again in her life.
About this time her father and his brother Edward purchased a small summer cottage in a Christian community with wide sandy beaches on the other side of Lake Michigan. Every summer these two families enjoyed time together at Bethany Beach, learning to swim and climb giant sand dunes.
Mary’s Mom, a born entertainer, coaxed other families from the Chicago area to join them at Bethany. This made for mobs of joyful children exploring nature, picking fruit, riding bikes, buying penny candy, attending summer-Sunday-school, and of course lots of time at the beach. On summer evenings Mary went to sleep listening to crickets and whip-poor-wills, sunburned and happy.
Mary set a good example as the firstborn, quietly taking the lead and faithfully making responsible choices. Both Tom and Margaret appreciated her paving the way for them – always the first to attend a new school or take on a new responsibility.
She was the first to brave the crowded halls of New Trier High School and was a diligent student who got good grades. When she left home for college she chose North Park because it wasn’t too far from home. She was still a homebody and wanted to return often.
It was at North Park Mary decided to become a nurse, eventually securing a bachelor’s degree and becoming a Registered Nurse from Swedish Covenant Hospital’s School of Nursing. She later worked there as a head nurse, a rewarding job she loved. But something even more wonderful was happening during this same time.
Margaret remembers the day Mary called and excitedly said, “I saw a really handsome guy outside, on a ladder, leaning up against the hospital wall. I’m trying to find out who he is.” It turned out to be Bervin Peterson, Manager of Engineering and Technical Services at the hospital, the guy the girls called “The Moustache” and who would soon become the love of Mary’s life.
She and Bervin went on their first date on June 9, 1964 – ice cream and a walk along Lake Michigan. Sparks flew right away, and a 52-year love story had begun. They married three years later on June 24, 1967, and took up residence in the staff building across the street from Swedish Covenant Hospital.
God blessed them with seven children, her first at age 26 and her last at 46. During the nearly 40 years with children living at home, Mary had the privilege of being a stay-at-home mother, though with her large, lively brood, she had plenty of opportunity to continue using her nursing skills.
Bervin and Mary raised their family in Northbrook, Illinois, where Mary became a homemaker of excellence. Theirs was the house-of-choice for all the neighbors – who else had a trampoline, a zip line, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, a couple of raccoons, a swing set 20 feet tall, and a full cookie jar?
She invited all the neighborhood girls to cookie swaps every Christmas and the whole neighborhood for occasional soup suppers. At Halloween she gave out giant candy bars and was happy to have mobs of children at birthday parties and sleep-overs. She also organized her basement to rival Disneyland. This was a play place with a pool table, a swing-seat, shelves loaded down with toys for every age, video games, and exercise equipment. The Peterson house was always full of children, both hers and the neighbors’.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. She invited a crowd of women in weekly to pray for their school kids, leading the group and becoming a sounding board for moms with parenting troubles.
The Older Years
In 2002 Mary and Bervin joined the ranks of happy grandparents when twin girls ushered in the next generation.
Mary had a pivotal role in the lives of her 11 grandchildren, and was excited for the 12th due in February 2017. In fact, her last spoken words were to congratulate her daughter on discovering the 12th grandbaby would be a girl. Each of the grandkids adored their grandma. She pulled out all the stops whenever she was with them — always ready for an art project, games, outings, parties, sleep-overs, crafts, and a host of family traditions.
In 2011, with seven children grown and gone, Mary and Bervin decided to downsize. They moved into a glass-walled condo in the Loop, overlooking Millennium Park. One of the first things Mary ordered was a long dining table, big enough to host gatherings and feed a crowd.
She established a Tuesday night dinner tradition for all of her children who were in town, their spouses, and any nieces, nephews, or friends who wanted to come. She cooked massive meals for more than a dozen hungry diners each week and continued this tradition every Tuesday until just a few weeks before she died.
Loving tradition as she did, Mary loved summers at the family cottage in Michigan. Every Saturday she’d produce tall stacks of Swedish pancakes for whoever wanted to come, always decorating her table with festive napkins and an attractive centerpiece. She loved time at the beach and referred to sitting in the sun as “therapy for the soul.”
Mary was fiercely loyal – once a friend, always a friend. She had a lengthy prayer list and never minded adding one more line, one more concern. On each day of the week she prayed for one of her seven children (and their families), also covering nieces and nephews.
When her brother-in-law Nate died in 2009, she diligently drove to Michigan every Thursday evening to spend time with her grieving sister. For nearly seven years, she virtually never missed a week, protecting that commitment from being usurped by other things.
In February of 2014, Mary spiked a high fever. She learned that day she had pancreatic cancer. Though she thought her time would be measured in days, she was fortunate to be eligible for an extensive surgery (a Whipple procedure), which she underwent at Mayo Clinic, extending her life 2½ years.
With a fresh perspective that life is short and eternity is long, Mary found herself with a renewed zest for service. Even during the misery of chemo, she continued to meet her many pre-cancer commitments with enthusiasm and hard work. Though her energy waned as the cancer came back, she refused to let any of it slow her down and was thankful for the additional time she had to serve others.
During the last year, as Mary readied herself to transition to heaven, she organized her cupboards and drawers and began filling out the pages of what she called her “funeral book,” planning all the details of this service.
She made a point of taking each of the older grandchildren on a grandma-date, matching their interests to the event, and then sharing a meal. Her deeper purpose was to have an open dialog about her cancer and upcoming death, wanting to reassure them of her love and also of God’s. She talked about their relationship with the Lord and pleaded with them not to be angry at Him for taking her away, trying to explain it in ways each could understand.
Less than three weeks ago she sensed her cancer beginning to take over. She continued to participate in the swirl of activity around her as long as she could, pushing herself to show love and kindness to whomever was in front of her.
The last project she worked on was a clay flower pot on which she glued rows of pretty beach stones. Around the top she wrote out one of her favorite Scripture verses, Isaiah 26:4. “Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.”
Last Saturday evening while resting peacefully in her bedroom at her much beloved Bethany Beach house and in the presence of her loving husband, sister Margaret and Luke, she was released from her failing body and welcomed into the arms of her Savior Jesus.
Her life and death truly demonstrate Lamentations 3 that says: “The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness.”