By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A trio of local sisters just celebrated their 75th birthday. Etowah County natives Mary Jackson, Martha Smith and Sarah Payne reflected on their experiences as triplets, celebrating another milestone in lives enriched with love.
A blustery and rainy night in 1946 marked history for rural Altoona, in the country home where Mary, Martha and Sarah were born and raised. Having given birth previously to two other children, their mother recognized the peculiarity of her pregnancy with the triplets early on. After the doctor delivered Mary and Martha, he wandered to the kitchen to get coffee, surmising his job was finished and he could relax. The triplets’ mother stopped him straightaway, saying, “No! There’s another one!”
Living in the country with no electricity, the girls grew up in a cheerful home enriched with love, where their parents and older siblings treated them with care and adoration. At three years old, their elder sibling Faye trekked the quarter-of-a-mile jaunt to their grandmother’s home, carrying an oatmeal box to collect the bottles stored in the spring. Like clockwork, Faye gathered the triplets’ bottles for each feeding – only stumbling and breaking them once.
“I remember a joke they used to tell,” said Martha. “Somebody saw my dad a day or two after we were born and said, ‘The Lord really smiled on you!’ He said, ‘No, he laughed out loud.’”
The middle of the three, Martha endured a tumor behind her ear that she underwent surgery to remove at five months old. While Martha often watched her sisters explore underneath their parents’ protective eye, Mary and Sarah accused their mother of loving Smith the most. Their mother assured them that her love abounded equally for the three of them, something Faye agreed with, treasuring her sisters with fondness.
“When Martha and I started walking and Sarah tried to walk, we would push her back down,” said Mary. “She was the baby! She wasn’t supposed to walk yet.”
“Mother said I got tired of it one day, though,” said Sarah. “I grabbed Mary by the hair of the head and she thought I was going to pull her hair out!”
Growing up with an array of sisters, the girls inherited a collection of best friends, attending church and school with one another. A talented seamstress who could witness a piece of clothing and recreate it for herself, their mother dressed them alike in dresses homemade from feed sacks. They played imaginative games like ‘rock school,’ and developed their own interests as the years passed. Daring and adventurous Mary loved their families’ horses, while reserved Martha preferred reading and later, knitting and crocheting. Outgoing Sarah manifested hobbies in sewing and cooking, which she is still passionate about today.
“We were very happy and very close to each other,” said Sarah. “We did everything together. We belong to a very loving family.”
Though the girls joked about matching outfits, hand-me-downs and following the lead, Faye attested to the schemes that brewed in their household to accompany the laughter, often plotted by ringleader Mary.
“We didn’t have to wish for another friend,” said Faye. “We started out with friends. Sometimes, I thought [the triplets] would get in my way. They did and they knew it! Sometimes they did it on purpose. They watched me and my boyfriend out the attic window when we came home. They spied on me!”
“I remember an incident in elementary school,” said Martha. “When we started school in first grade, we didn’t want to go. We cried and the teacher would let us sit near one another. When we got into the second grade, the teacher set us in different parts of the room so she could learn who was who. We would switch seats on her! It took her a few days to realize what we were doing.”
Graduation from Altoona High School wrote a new chapter in the triplets’ lives, with the girls beginning their careers. Sarah learned secretarial skills through a government grant, serving as a secretary for 40 years at both Liberty National Insurance Company and Blount County-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce until her retirement. Mary and Martha gained positions with the United States Army working at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. While Mary worked at the arsenal for three years before getting married and moving to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a short while, Martha retired from a career she considers a blessing from God.
“I started with the Department of the Army when I was 19, hired in at the lowest level,” said Martha. “I worked in the typing field for 16 years, and I was able to get into a training program that did not require college education. I was able to work my way through that and I became a contract specialist. I was able to take an early retirement because of being able to build up enough retirement to live on. I give all that praise to God, because He made it happen.”
As the sun rose and set from day to day, the girls whose jovial childhoods transformed into promising professions developed families of their own. Sarah married former Etowah High School principal Ernie Payne, with whom she has three children and several grandchildren, who she adores. Mary adopted her son with her husband and will celebrate her granddaughter’s nine-year-old birthday soon, who she deems their pride and joy. As a doting and helpful aunt, Martha considers her nieces and nephews her children as well, a constant and loving reminder of the values her parents instilled in her during her own youth.
Throughout the years, the sisters witnessed more than simple changes in their lives. They experienced the progression of their communities, exemplified by the ceaseless modernization of technology manifesting in electricity for their country home, telephones, computers and paved roads. The girls watched as time revolutionized industry and created a shift in lifestyles, with Sarah noting the closeness of houses yet the distance between neighbors. With the hectic nature of the modern world, people often seldom interact with their neighbors like they did in the past in their close-knit Altoona community.
Family and faith coincide in Mary, Martha and Sarah, who understand the importance of treasuring each moment with beloved friends and relatives and seeking God’s greater purpose in every morning. As the trio remember eras enlivened with laughter and love, they consider the lessons life taught them from decade to decade.
“Time is going to pass no matter what we do,” said Sarah. “We can change our attitude and what we do, but we can’t change other people. They have to make the change themselves. I feel like I’ve had a very rewarding life, having my three children, grandchildren and dear husband. I’m just happy with what I have.
“I’ve learned to be more patient, not to worry as much as turn the situation over to the Lord,” said Martha. “I try my best to leave it with Him, for Him to work out. I still consider myself young, [but] I have become more outgoing than when I was younger. I had plastic surgery on my face in my early twenties [to reconstruct the effects of the tumor] and that helped me have more confidence. Before then, I just wanted to fade into the wallpaper. I’ve trusted in the Lord for years, and I don’t know why it made the difference, but it did.”
75 marks but yet another landmark for the trio, whose youthful spirits and vibrant personalities radiate through every laugh, smile and spoken word. The triplets joined their sister Faye once more, offering younger generations a morsel of advice to carry with them in life, as they themselves gaze forward into their futures – hopeful for three times the happiness in all the days to come.
“Just trust in God and do it,” said Mary.
“You can’t take it with you,” said Faye. “Share it. Let [your loved ones] know you love them.”
“Live each day day-by-day and don’t worry about tomorrow,” said Sarah. “If you have petty irritations, overlook them. Spend as much time as you can together because time is short.”
“Seek the advice of an older person, because they’ve experienced many things that these younger people are faced with,” said Martha. “Many times, they can give you really wise advice. I agree with Sarah about taking things one day at a time, but I’d like to add you need to seek God’s wisdom and guidance for your life.”