Category Archives: Friends

Mary is Dying

MaryHow is that possible, really?

We were teenagers together. We talked into the night. We created songs together. We dreamed dreams. We loved being friends. We were the real deal.

Mary was forever: the rock of a small quartet of girls who navigated the sixties in a thrum of social upheaval. Mary, tall and seemingly powerful, resilient and self-confident, she was the magnet and in many ways, the de facto leader. She was the stable one. She had the traditional home life. She was smart and she was talented, a voice to die for, a smile that lit the hearts of her friends. But she was not the traditional beauty of that era. She was not blonde or petite or giggly. Mary would come into her real prime as a woman . . . and so she did.

Where Mary was the regal big girl, Becky was the slight, soft-spoken one. Becky seemed fragile but with a sincerity of heart that spoke kindness and love. Self-deprecating, she always spoke better of others than she did of herself. She had her own form of stability, but it was deeper. She was the the non-judgmental one; she was the one who accepted everyone around her at face value; she believed in the good of people, even the ones who hurt her and betrayed her. Also brilliant, Becky was our philosopher.

Jennie was our conscience in the face of change. We actually lost her to the times. It was 1968, the year MLK was assassinated and black power became a force to be reckoned with. She had to choose between the love of friends, that is, her white friends, and a future where she would have to make place as a black woman.  Blacks of that time were asserting their identity; it was important to be black, to be proud, to be strong in the face of prejudice. But we didn’t think it needed to affect our group, we loved freely, we were true friends. But for her, it was a moment of crisis. Her black friends had challenged her, had questioned her “blackness.” She,too, was brilliant, but even that aspect of herself had to be set aside for the sake of identity and the black Muslim culture. We lost her that spring, right before graduation: she moved on to another life without us.

And who was I in that day? A poor girl trying to escape her foreignness, her Latvian-ness, her unstable home life, her fears, her self-loathing. I wanted to be like anyone else, just not me.

Mary’s home had been a refuge. Her pastor father (Gordon) always seemed accepting and gentle. Even if he was protective and conservative, it never came across as anger or vindictiveness. He was steady. And kind. To me. Mary’s mother, Edith, was another rock. Clearly, Mary’s stature and security seemed rooted in the genes of her mother. Edith was a servant, a traditional mother, who made cookies and kept her kitchen clean and aromatic. She would sit at the kitchen table with us . . . with me . . . and listen. Her listening spoke of respect for us, despite our age and our inexperience. She was interested in our ideas. She grieved for my home life–and Becky’s. Years later, I would be comfortable enough to spend two weeks in their home, playing scrabble, and becoming one of their beloved “strays.” Gordon died in 2006. Edith, at 96, is in hospice now. She is not remembering, not every day at least, that her daughter is dying too. Will they pass together? I would not be surprised.

Mary is dying. How can that be? How do I embrace a truth of that magnitude and not somehow “do” something. Can’t I stop the inevitability? Can’t I pray the right prayer? Can’t I be the “Good Witch of the West” and wave my magic wand to stop this travesty of human loss?

My tears will not keep her here. Nor will my anger or indignation. Nor my pleas to the God of my faith.

How often have I really seen her since those teen days, those magical days when we bonded hearts in such a way that even a lifetime of loves and experiences and travels and change could not break our bond? Not so many visits, not really. We were so sure of our friendship that we didn’t really worry much about the time or the distance. Whenever we did connect, we just started right there. Whether we sat in a boat in the Magothy River or lounged in her parents’ cottage in Mayo, Maryland or got all dressed up and celebrated a family wedding or birthday, we believed in that undying friendship. We made it so.

Yet, Mary is dying.

She was the one who filled her life with adventures from Canada to Nepal to months on a sailboat; Mary was always seeking, seeking, seeking. She cast aside her traditional God understanding and tried on a few extremes but then eventually, found a way to unite them all within herself into a magnificent wholeness. She walked labyrinths and sat in sweat lodges; she sang hymns and tribal chants; she wandered the universe within and she learned about the voice of silence. She found love in Jim and their marriage challenged her as much, if not more, than her wilderness experiences. But, she remained the rock, even for him, and then for her two girls, Hilary and Ariana, as well. She learned with them and through them. She went back to school and picked up that formal credential to do something she had already been doing all her life: helping others be themselves.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on. She will cross into a new kind of life and her greatest adventure of all time begins. She leaves a legacy of love. She leaves a plethora of friends who call her cherished. Her daughters will fill jugs with their tears and yet Mary will drink them, in gratitude for their trajectories launched. They will be all right. And even Jim, husband of three decades, will find her spirit near to under gird the sorrow days and nights. He will be all right too.

But will I? Will Becky? Would Jennie, if she knew, even after all this time? Mary was a presence that we counted on, maybe only once a year or even less, and yet, we knew the tether from 1964 remained unbroken . . . until now. Our grief will be different than the immediate family. We can pretend for longer that she’s still there. And so, I predict, there will be odd drifts of grief that will overwhelm us in the months to come. It will feel fresh and immediate. And memory will have to be enough but never will be. Until we meet again. There.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on.



Gladys and Kenny

If my house was the center of the universe, then this is how the other buildings circled around it: The church was on the corner, then along our back yard, was the green duplex. From our yard, I could see both back doors, on the right side lived Gladys with her husband, and on the left side, Kenny with his parents. In some ways, they were both my best friends.

Gladys was my own personal, dark headed version of Ethel Mertz. She always had a ready smile and she always made me laugh. She let me hang around in their back yard a lot. I can see her face perfectly in my mind, but her husband is a fuzz. Was he like Fred? I don’t remember. Their lawn furniture was those green metal outdoor chairs that kind of bounce a little when you sit in them. They had a small garden and it was always neat as a pin. Gladys was a safe place and she gave lots of hugs. They were the first to move away.

Capt Kangaroo & Mr. Green Jeans

Kenny lived next door. I don’t recall his parents at all, at least, not by image. But I know I spent a lot of time in their home. Until I went to the other school, we walked to School #10 together. His family had a TV and in the mornings we were allowed to watch Captain Kangarooo and Mr. Green Jeans until it was time to leave. The Captain was our Mr. Rogers.

We got ourselves in trouble quite a few times, mostly for going everywhere together (including one time we were caught in the bathroom – honest, it was totally innocent – we just had lots to talk about), or running the pipes at the construction place, or staying out until it was very dark. When it was hot and steamy, we would sit on his porch and play “I Spy.” We were indeed best friends.

So, it’s hard for me to replay that day I lost my friend because of a whim, a miscalculation, an accident. He didn’t die, but things were never the same. And soon afterwards, they moved away. Surely, that wasn’t my fault too?

Here’s what happened in a nutshell: We were talking across the fence, the picket fence the church had constructed on their easement from the alley. And Kenny decided to climb over into our yard. Easy peasy, we did it all the time. But for some reason, as he put his foot on the horizontal support, I thought it would be funny to make him fall backwards. But he didn’t fall backwards when I knocked out his foot. He fell straight down on the picket. They took him to the hospital.

I still look for Kenny Noe sometimes, online, on Facebook, places like that. Did he ever believe me that I was truly sorry? Did he forgive me? Did it even matter in the end? Did I ever forgive myself? It’s a scarey business to hurt someone you care about.