Oh, Mary

November 3, 2007

I want to tell you a remembering. But more importantly, I want to do it with love and respect. Because the person it is about deserves nothing less. Some of the details may be unclear, but there is a space in my heart where the best part of it is kept safe and sound.

This was in a different time and space. I was too young to comprehend the events of the mid 50’s and 60’s, but looking back on it now I realize that the relationship our family enjoyed was something special. And I was the beneficiary.

The woman cradling me on her knee in this picture is Mary. I don’t ever remember a time in my growing up that she wasn’t there at one point or another. In fact I don’t recall my parents trusting my care to anyone else, except my Grandmother. Which wasn’t often, and only if Mary couldn’t come. Sometimes her husband would bring her to our house, and sometimes my dad would pick her up. I loved it when she came and always wanted her to stay longer, even though I knew she had a family of her own.


Some days she would come when my mom was home. My dad loved it when she would iron his work clothes. She would starch them and use a 7-up bottle filled with water to sprinkle them as she ironed. He wore a khaki colored uniform with his name embroidered on the shirt. She made the creases in the trousers sharp and clean. My mom would use the mangle to iron table clothes and napkins, and some of her own clothes, but only Mary did my dad’s. Sometimes my mom would sit at the sewing machine and sew. I remember that she sewed dresses for Mary. Every so often she would stop and they would fit one piece or another, and she would start up again. Then my mom would make us lunch and we would sit at the table and talk. Mostly I would listen. Unless I was spoken to. That’s the way it was back then.

The best was when my parents would go away because then I had her all to myself. Once when they went up North to fish, Mary stayed for the week. What fun we had. Toward the end of the week we decided to wash my hair, because that was what my mom would do. I had waist length hair that was usually braided or banded in the back. We got through the washing just fine. Mary towel dried it and combed it out. Then she put some stuff on it to make it smooth and pretty. We were very proud of ourselves and told my mom just that when they got home. And of course my mom told us what a good job we had done. Later after Mary left I found out that what we put in my hair was Vaseline, because that was what she had put on her own children’s hair when they were little. I was pretty happy with it, but my mom said we really needed to wash it out. I spent a good long time lying on the kitchen counter with my head in the sink as she washed, and washed, and washed. They all laughed about it later and it became fodder for future stays.

Mary was very superstitious. And very patient. I took full advantage of both on many occasions. We had a black cat that my parents had named Satan. That was a double whammy for Mary. So when she came, I had to put the cat in another room, close the door, and promise not to let her out. If the cat would mysteriously get out she called my name in full, as only she could do, until I came to her rescue. Then I would get a firm talking to about the misfortune that my carelessness would bring down on us. I would giggle and say, “Oh, Mary”. When she threatened to go home, I knew she was serious.

One time my dad had taken me with him in his dump truck to get a load of dirt at old man Dodge’s field. It was so full of Gardner snakes that you could bend over and pick them up. So I found an old coffee can and brought some home to put in the aquarium on the balcony, off the back bedroom. One of them had babies, which was very cool. In the meantime, Mary had come for a visit. She had a near fit when she found out what I had. Apparently she didn’t like snakes any more than the cat. My mom made me let them all go. Mary would settle for nothing less.

The times I like the best were when she stayed the night. In the evening we would sit in the big armchair in the living room. I would crawl up on her lap and lay my head down. She would run her fingers over my brow. I can still smell the starch in her dress and it is a comfort even now. We would turn the lamp down low and listen to the radio. There would be gospel songs and Mary would sing along. Oh, how I loved those times. And soon I would fall asleep.

I remember one time in particular, when my parents got a phone call from Mary which sent them into a frenzy. I didn’t understand it all at the time, but I knew they were scared. Later I learned that they were trying to figure out a way for my dad to get Mary and her family to a place that was safe. They were hiding in their house with the lights out and Gary was on fire with riots. Much of the night was spent in a series of calls, looking for a safe route, but none could be found. All that was left was friends talking their way through the turmoil until the morning brought calm. That was my first realization of the ugliness of racism and the solace that transcendence brings.

As I grew older and started a family of my own, Mary remained part of my life. Although I didn’t see her near as often, she welcomed both of my children with the same warmth she shared with me. My mom would keep me up to date with her and her family. Their friendship lasted many years, until she left us in 1991.

I have started this telling many times over the last year or so. And as many times I have set it aside. The world we live in is so different now. It seems so important to remember and hold fast to that time in my life when I was oblivious to the color of a persons skin and aware of only what was in their heart and mine. That is the way I was raised up. Thanks to my parents. And Mary.


10 Responses to “Oh, Mary”

  1. daddy d Says:

    Love is what is important in relationships. Your story has love all around and through. People helping people is love in action.

  2. heartbodymindandspirit Says:

    What a gem Mary must have been. You were lucky to have someone like her in your life!


  3. her indoors Says:

    Mary sounds like a wonderful person to have known. We should all be oblivious to the colour of peoples skins and treat each other with the respect that people deserve.

  4. dilling Says:

    wouldn’t it be a fine time if we were all oblivious to the colour of skin?

  5. chrisb Says:

    Mary sounds a wonderful lady. You were raised with the sort of values everyone should have. Sadly the world has a long way to go before everyone lives in harmony.

  6. Hilary Says:

    What an absolutely lovely post. A wonderful reflection of the time and a truly beautiful tribute to Mary. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Susan Says:

    You were so lucky to have such a wonderful person in your life. She sounds like an amazing woman.

  8. mjd Says:

    GA, this is a very moving post about both Mary and your parents. They all provided a wonderful influence in your young life, and Mary and your parents would be proud to know the person that you are today.

    I truly believe that we are coming closer to a time when what is in our heart is more important than the color of our skin. Moreover, hopefully humankind can learn what is in a person’s heart is the most important part.

  9. tod Says:

    I so much enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  10. Patsy Ann Says:

    I was reading some back posts, when I came across this jem of yours. It brought warm thoughts to my heart, I envy you your past. To have a second mother is a treasure beyond compare. I love it when a relationship becomes so close that the color of ones skin can not be seen. I am very glad that you were able to share this post with us. Thank you very much.

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