Last Friday, around this time, I was thinking of perhaps going to bed. The next morning, at 3.30 a.m. to be precise, I was going to join in a long drive from Philadelphia to a small town in Vermont to be present at a memorial service for my aunt through marriage.
The last time Mary posted on Facebook, this is what she wrote:
Mary Freeman shared a link via Northern Stage.
December 11, 2013
Mike and I went last night and it was great. Really put one in the mood for the holidays. Tonight we are headed to Norwich to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Ann Hood. Of course my favorite has to be my own family member Ru Freeman:).
She and Mike had gone to see Northern Stage (Vermont), put on a production of “White Christmas.” I don’t know what the days were like since then for her, I only know that by on February 24th, when I landed in San Francisco en route to Seattle for a conference (AWP), I turned on my phone to a voice mail that told me that Mary was very ill and was not going to make it. It wasn’t something I was ready to believe. I had seen her over Thanksgiving, and had a particularly lovely memory of that time: an almost adult who is rarely demonstrative, somehow cuddling up to Mary and resting her head on her shoulder.
How could it be, then, that I’m sitting here now realizing that this particular image of Mary is the last one I have of her? Among the things we’d talked about that Thanksgiving were presents. Somehow, over the years, Mary always seemed to know exactly what to give me as gifts. One particular year, I had been looking at a calendar from Syracuse Cultural Workers that I liked, and also loving – in the gushy way I love and dog-ear and never buy other such things in catalogs – a gorgeous, mostly orange, serving dish for crudités. I never mentioned these things to anybody, I just tossed the catalogs away. And yet, that year for Christmas, she gave me those two very things that I’d been hankering after. In years since, she’s given me many gifts, among them two I treasure greatly – a pair of gorgeous Simon Pearce Thetford tea-lights that have sat on my dining table ever since she gave them to me. How did she know exactly which things catch my heart?
As I listened to the people from Mary’s life describe their relationship to her, and I learned about worlds I hadn’t known Mary was a part of, it occured to me that Mary knew far more about me than I ever knew about her. She had a way of asking questions about my life, not just the one that had come into being when I married her only nephew, nor the person I had become because of that, but the person I had been before I even arrived in the U.S. She was curious about my parents, my brothers, even my friends. She asked after each one by name. She remembered the details of their lives, their marriages and divorces, their struggle with employment, how many children they had. She knew the name of my best friend from childhood, and my best friend in my current neighborhood, and she knew the various estrangements that had occured between each, as well as the forgiving that had taken place. She asked about my writing, bought and gifted copies of my novels, argued with her husband about who might have modeled for the cover of the first, and read every blog post I ever wrote. She didn’t say much on Facebook, but if ever there was something I said that concerned her, or made her laugh, she would message me.
Things like this:
Who is taking flying lessons?
Ru–are those great nieces of mine giving you grief?? Just tell them that Jerry is coming to town (that should scare them-it would me if I was them). I hope you are in a better space today. Mary
Does this mean you won’t be wearing your sexy boots next week? Mike will be soo disappointed.
No crutches at the wedding–there is a slope. So, no flinging yourself at passing taxis.
I know you shouldn’t pick a book by its’ cover, but I often do and your’s is a beauty!!!!
This is an exchange I remember particularly well:
February 22, 2013
What is in Kansas City? Watch out for the twisters.
Ha! Winter Institute. Big American Booksellers Association meeting. Lots of socializing with booksellers : )
Have fun. Kansas isn’t all straight laced–Melissa Etheridge is from there. I’ve only been through in the early hours of the night. Say hi to Dorothy.
I will/ And try to stay on the ground : )
When are you flying home? NBC has Kansas City as the bull’s eye for a major storm–stay safe, my friend.
But most of all, messages like this one:
Ru, I hope you are happier than you look–you seem sad, but that can’t be (can it?). You must be exhausted and running on adrenaline. We have friends that are moving to Petaluna as I write this and I’ve told them about your appearance at Copperfield’s. Stay happy and healthy. Love, M.
It was to Mary – visiting me at an apartment in Holyoke – that I blurted that if things did not work out with the boyfriend (her nephew), I would never want to be involved with some guy again; it was too much work and trouble. She found that a bit shocking, given that I was just a freshman in college, what could I know of the blows of life and the viccicitudes of marriage after all, but she listened anyway, talking with me about things that concerned me, neither affirming this sentiment nor trying to talk me out of it, simply communicating, while letting me be.
Of her life, I only knew the things that she chose to tell me. Most of the time she talked about her friends (Michelle, Sue), and the various comings and goings between the households – often involving pets and Leah, her daughter – she told me about Mike and his caving, marathons, and work, and she shared her stories of Leah. Leah as a seven year old, Leah as a teenager, Leah with boyfriends, Leah in college, and Leah planning a wedding. But the reasons for the things she did, or the passion behind what moved her, these escaped me. It seems strange, looking back, that I didn’t ask her more questions than I did. It is a habit with me, after all, the asking of questions, the trying to understand what’s what with people. But not with Mary. She was so good at deflecting attention, and making it seem as though it would be okay to let all the light shine on me. Mary, in more ways than I can count, let me be a child, focussing on my doings, accomplishments, trials, and joys as though they were all that needed to occupy the space between us.
So much of the gentler moments in our lives come about because someone is willing to do what Mary was so good at doing – expressing repeatedly, year after year, how genuinely interested they are in us, and our evolution. At her memorial, I gazed out at rows of tables laden with quilts that Mary had made for her beloveds over the years. It seemed so fitting a display of the giving aesthetic of her heart, as well as the complexity of someone I had always enjoyed being with, but never knew completely. One day, some day, I imagine that the whys and wherefores of her life will be revealed to me through anecdote and memory. For now, there is only the steady knowledge that she loved me and was always willing to show it.