At first I thought there had been some mistake. Instead of Mary Worth, in the comic strip of the same name, there was an attractive fortyish matron who was not Mary Worth but some actress from Central Casting filling in while some meaningless -- episode of an estranged baby-boomer couple droned on. Then I realized that the matron was indeed supposed to represent Mary Worth and that the real Mary had been replaced while she was on vacation.
Well, times change, I thought, and characters change. Maybe Little Orphan Annie is still running somewhere and maybe she's been given eyelids. [Editor's note: She's in The Evening Sun, and she hasn't.]
It's not like this is the first occurrence of revisionism and metamorphosis in Mary's life. She lives in the best of all possible worlds. She keeps getting younger, although she is 92 years old this year, having been born with the 20th century as was Helen Hayes. What is this thing I have for old women?
Mary Worth was 32 years old when she hit what we used to call the funny pages, but there wasn't much funny about Mary's life in those depression years. Mary was an old woman and not a very attractive one in 1932. All people looked older than their years in those years.
She came equipped with a biography: born in Crawfordsville, Indiana; went to grade school and high school there (edited her senior yearbook); went to Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where she majored in English literature and met her future husband Jack Worth, football star and big-man-on-campus. Jack died young, leaving Mary with a spoiled son, John David Jr. (''Slim''), who turned out a ne'er-do-well and deserted a crippled son named Dennis leaving him with his grandmother. Then the Great Depression hit, and Mary was reduced to selling apples on the street to support herself and Dennie.
That's when cartoonist Martha Orr got onto her story and put it in the funny pages as Apple Mary. By then, Mary was plain, fat and tough. Physically and verbally, she could give as much as she got. That's when I made her acquaintance, 60 years ago. I've stuck with her ever since, depending on where I was and which newspaper carried her adventures and travails.
In 1942, when I was busy with the war, Dale Conner and Allen Saunders (artist and author, by-line Dale Allen) took over the strip and did a rehab job on Mary. She got younger. She reacquired the gentility she'd had at Denison. Her hair was attractively set, her clothing fashionable, her attitude calm, her purpose in life to aid her fellow man. She was the Ma Perkins of the comics, although Ma never got younger as Mary did. For the next 50 years Mary stayed late-middle-aged, helping people all over the country while being based in an apartment in New York City.
Dale Conner gave way to Ken Ernst, then Ernst gave way. John Saunders took over for his late father and still writes the story. Two people I don't know, Ziegler and Armstrong, now collaborate, and there's another name on the drawing, Giella. Apparently somebody decided, in obeisance to the youth cult, to youthen Mary Worth -- at least to bring her in line with what is now called ''the aging baby-boomers,'' who apparently prefer the puerile drawing of Sally Forth. I, longtime Mary Worth fan and member of what Time magazine in the 1960s called ''the command generation,'' am now simply old.
But I've been through a lot with Mary Worth. None of these youngsters could ever know her as I know her and love her, and perhaps, if I live as long as she has, I'll get used to her periodic reductions in age. But this time it's going to take some time.
Robert J. Jones describes himself, rather superfluously, as a ''comic-strip devotee.'' He writes from Glyndon.