On Mother’s Day, Mary Chin’s children and their families gathered around the 103-year-old matriarch. Widowed more than six decades ago when she was a young mother of nine, Mrs. Chin remained a pillar of strength for four generations of her Charlestown family.
Though 4-foot-10, Mrs. Chin seemed to fear nothing and no one. She shooed away drunks who shuffled from bars that flanked her block on Main Street and deftly handled disputes that inevitably arose as owner of her late husband’s laundry business. And there wasn’t a wrinkle on a customer’s shirt that stood a chance with her, family and friends said.
“She worked very hard, and she had all of us,” said her daughter Helen Chin Schlichte of Charlestown. “She wasn’t alone, but it was still very hard.”
Mrs. Chin died June 1 in South Cove Manor in Chinatown. Her health had been failing, her family said, but her mind was sharp enough to still offer cogent motherly advice.
Her youngest child was 2 months old when her husband, Edwin, died after a short illness in the mid-1940s. Relatives, neighbors, and customers rallied to aid the family. Police captains at the station down the street offered their support, as did judges who worked at the nearby courthouse.
“The Chins were always there to give you advice, and you could just sense when you would go to the store that the moving force behind all of them was the mother,” said longtime friend and customer Gerard F. Doherty of Charlestown.
Mary Gee grew up in a small farming village in the Guangdong province of China. She did not talk much about her earlier years, but intimated to her children that one of her responsibilities was keeping watch over her family’s water buffaloes. This often entailed climbing atop their backs, and once in a while she fell asleep as they carried her.
“The stories that my mom told relate more to the hardship of growing up in the village, economic hardship, and limited opportunities,” said her son Francis of Newton.
Her marriage to Edwin K.S. Chin was arranged by their families. She arrived in Charlestown in 1932, got married, and went to work in his business.
Mrs. Chin bought a Singer sewing machine to mend clothing, and she was involved in all aspects of the family laundry business. Six days a week she sorted the clothes customers dropped off, then washed, dried, and ironed them.
She also kept the books and ran the schedules of her children, who often came into the shop to help when they weren’t doing homework.
“It was my mom who taught us to be loyal,” Helen said.
Mrs. Chin’s children said the lessons they learned from watching her approach her work were indelible, and they can still hear her reminding them: “Don’t waste time,” “Save your money,” and “Work a little harder.”
Mrs. Chin also abhorred gossip, and insisted on being polite to the toughest of customers.
“She had good rapport with them,” said her son Thomas of Newton. “But the rapport was based on providing good, prompt service and being attentive to the customer’s requirements.”
Mrs. Chin’s cooking abilities were memorable, her family said. No part of meat or vegetables went unused, and she always knew where to find the freshest ingredients at the best prices. Every week, a freshly killed chicken was purchased in the North End. Leaf-wrapped rice dumplings were her Dragon Boat Festival specialty.
When Mrs. Chin was asked for a recipe, Thomas recalled, she told a daughter-in-law: “There’s no recipe. You take so much of this, so much of that. You just put in enough, and you know when it’s enough.”
Her business closed when she retired in the mid-1970s.
In addition to her daughter Helen and sons Francis and Thomas, Mrs. Chin leaves two other daughters, May Young of Hartford, and Eleanor of Charlestown; four other sons, Theodore of Somerville, David and Philip, both of Charlestown, and Joseph of Wilmington; a sister, Alicia Wi of Braintree; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
Services have been held. Burial was in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
Although Mrs. Chin never returned to China, she rounded up funds to send to her former village, and where her late husband had lived, for causes such as road improvements, aid for schools, and maintaining family homes.
“She was extremely hard-working and she would look out for others,” Thomas said. “She was extremely helpful.”