Mary Welch draws her hand across the smooth gray-toned cover of the slim volume in her lap. "Life's Poems," by Mary Margaret Sheets-Welch, the title reads.
"It's my life story in this book," she said, noting the tragedies in her life — serious illness, the deaths of two husbands and more recently two of her children, and family estrangement. "Always the Lord was with me and brought me through it," she added.
The 15 poems come from her 88 years of experience. One remembers the mother who encouraged her to walk at age 16 after years of suffering from the effects of rheumatic fever. Another speaks of her growing blindness as "a blessing in disguise." She laments aging in another and in her favorite poem worries about the "orphan elderly."
Welch began writing the poems as part of a poetry club she founded at Trinity House, a senior community in downtown Towson. An occasional poet, she founded the club at the suggestion of an administrator soon after she moved there about a year and a half ago.
Formerly a resident of Columbia, Glen Burnie and Florida, Welch moved to Trinity to be near her daughter Carol Wingard, principal at Seven Oaks Elementary School in Perry Hall, who lives in Dulaney Valley. "I feel God sent me here," she said. "I fell in love with the place."
But she found herself sitting inside her one-bedroom apartment with little to do. Suffering from macular degeneration, she was losing her sight — until she could see mostly shadows and colors.
Welch had always been active. She had participated in RV rallies with the Good Sam Club of Baltimore with her first husband, Austin Sheets, who was state director of the local chapter. Rallies took them around the country and to Canada where the couple had dinner with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
For an American Bicentennial rally at the Frederick Fairgrounds, she wrote a play that was performed before an audience of 3,000.
The couple, who had married in 1949, was living in Florida when Sheets was killed by a drunken driver. Mary decided to move back to Maryland where 12 years later, at her church's Sunday school, she met Edward Welch, her second husband. They were married 12 years until his death in 2011.
Welch, a mother of three with two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, had often volunteered at nursing homes throughout the years and visited the sick she met through church. "I didn't want to sit in an apartment," she said.
She had shown a few poems to the Trinity House staff, and they suggested she start the poetry club. "We got a great big crowd," she said.
And it has continued to meet every other week. About 20 members gather to play word games, write poetry of their own and suggest the theme for Welch's next poem. She writes one for each meeting
"I'm thinking of putting out a Trinity Poetry Club collection," Welch said. "We've got some people in that club who can write some beautiful poems."
In the meantime, club members have turned Welch's book into a minor sensation. Some 30 copies of the volume are on order with new requests still coming in, Welch said.
She has ordered one for the staff, too. "Without this staff, I could never have done this book," she said.
For one thing, writing verse in longhand is pretty tricky when you can't see it. Welch could write it down, but because of her macular degeneration, she could never re-read it. Trinity House staff found a grant to get Welch a reading machine that enlarges the text so she could read it on a screen. "It's been my eyes," she said.
Wingard collected her mother's handwritten originals and typed them for publication through a self-publishing company.
"She had always said she would love to have her poems published," Wingard said.
"I cried all day when I saw it," Welch said.
Wingard had to order the additional copies — with a photo and short biography of her mother — for friends who wanted their own books.
"You can see her journey as you see changes and obstacles and her belief in God," Wingard said.