When many might give up and let literal darkness envelop their lives, Mary Atencio kept doing. 

Always one to keep busy, whether it was sewing, painting, crocheting or making ceramics, when the Belen native lost her sight to macular degeneration 13 years ago, many of those activities went by the wayside. 

“I’m one of those people that has to have something to do with my hands, or I was reading. I had to give up almost everything,” Mary recalls. “But I decided later on, ‘I need to do something.’ So I took up yarn.” 

Working by touch, Mary began crocheting again. It wasn’t easy but she kept trying and trying, until she relearned the craft. 

“It wasn’t as neat as I used to do it at the beginning. I practiced, and it was hard starting it, but it came back to me,” she said.  

As she got back into the swing of making, Mary also returned to another life-long habit — generosity. 

“Ever since I can remember, she has been a giving person. When she was doing her ceramics, they were beautiful, beautiful ceramics. People were selling them for hundreds of dollars. She would give me away,” said her daughter, Lucie Atencio. “She has always taught us that you give. She does that at her yard sales and she did that when she was making tamales. If someone admires something, she’d give it to them. She’d give her last nickel.” 

As Mary made more and more scarves, the two women knew they needed to be used. Initially, they found people locally who were experiencing homelessness and gave them out one by one but, eventually, began taking them to organizations like St. Martin’s Hospitality Center in Albuquerque.  

When she was able to sew, Mary frequently made crazy quilts to give away, Lucie said, and many people in the community still have them years later. 

“Someone will see her and remember the quilt she gave them,” her daughter said.  

Mary says it’s easy to give and be generous to others when it’s something she has experienced from so many people in the community.  

“People are nice and friendly. That’s Belen. It’s always been that way and there are a lot of people who helped me when I came back, after being married and living in Albuquerque,” Mary said. “I would see people I went to school with and remembered me when I was 16.” 

That kindness often translates into yarn donations, Lucie said, especially when people learn what Mary does. 

“If we’re out at a yard sale and ask about yarn, people are curious about what she makes with it,” Lucie said. “When they find out, a lot of people will donate and, with it being a small town, word has spread.” 

That gifted yarn has been turned into hundreds of scarves over the years, and family members know if they give Mary a gift card for a craft store, it will go to more  yarn and scarves.  

Being the seventh of 10 children, and “small,” according to Mary, she knew if she wanted to do things, she had to learn how to do them. 

She remembers being a senior in high school and needing one more credit to graduate. She took shop at a time when that was unusual for girls.  

“I was the only girl in the class and the teacher, he’d been there for many years and he was good, he told me, ‘If you’re going to be in here, you’re going to do things. You’re gonna’ learn.’ That was fine. I’ve always been a doer,” Mary said. 

Now that doing is done in the dark, which is oddly a boon for Mary. 

“If I wake up at night and can’t go back to sleep, I can sit there and crochet,” she said. “I don’t need a light. I do it all by feel.

When you’ve gone through so much of life, illness, raising and caring for children, Mary says people might get to the point where they wonder, “What can I accomplish now? And you have to do something. It makes me feel good to know that at 93, I can do something useful. It isn’t much, but it makes me feel good to know I’m not just ‘here,’ that I’m useful and I can do things. 

“I’m very grateful for any little thing I can do, especially when I think, ‘My God, I’m close to 94.’” 

Her daughter notes a lot of people don’t make it to that age. 

“You can see it in the hugs she gets from the people who get her scarves,” Lucie said. “You’re the hero.” 

Mary chuckles and says she’s no hero. 

“I just do things.” 

Lucie insists she is and calls herself Mary’s sidekick. 

“I’m your Robin, OK Batman?” 

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.