I apologize for the late post. I went to New York for a funeral. Pleas read on.
The first time I met Mary, she was moving into the house next door to mine. She was tall, Italian and had short black hair, curled and coiffed so it never moved. Her seven-year-old daughter, Beth, asked me if I wanted to have a picnic on the front lawn. I was nine and wary of hanging out with younger kids, but she was so nice and she was right next door, so I said yes. Beth and I laid a blanket out on the tall grass that grew above the septic tank. We could hear her mom and dad, but mostly her mom, directing the movers as they emptied their truck. Mary was multitasking, taking care of Beth’s baby sister while she got the house in order.
Every day after that, I stepped through the tunnel we’d cut in lilacs between our yards and went to Beth’s house. Her mom always welcomed me, even if it was dinnertime, in which case she’d invite me to eat. She made the best chicken cutlets. My family ate earlier than Beth’s family so one summer I’d eat with my parents, then go to Beth’s house and eat with her family. My mom was pretty pissed when she found out and she scolded me for gaining weight. Even after she learned of my double dinners, my mom, who was big into etiquette, never invited Beth to eat dinner with us.
My yaiya lived with us at the time, and even though she didn’t speak that much English, Yiaya and Mary would visit every day on our patio. My mom was closer in age to Mary and spoke fluent English, but she wasn’t social and wasn’t crazy about Mary. Mary did chat with my dad when he was home, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people more into neighborhood gossip than them.
Over the years, we got to know Mary quite well. We went to Beth’s and her little sister’s first communions and confirmations and her family would always be at my birthday parties. Mary always asked me to call her Aunt Mary but I knew my parents would disapprove.
It wasn’t until Beth and I were teenagers that we had a falling out with Mary. Beth and I had started smoking, and when Beth’s mom found out, she completely freaked. She grilled Beth, asking who introduced her to cigarettes. The culprit was a cousin, but she didn’t want to get family in trouble, so she named me.
Mary stormed over to my house. It was summertime, my parents were away and I was there with Yiaya. Mary yelled through the door “YOUR GRANDDAUGHTER STARTED MY DAUGHTER SMOKING!” over and over again, in different iterations. When Yiaya closed the back door, Mary went around to the front, yelling into that door. We could still hear her after Yiaya closed that door. After about twenty minutes, Mary gave up and went home. Because of that incident, Beth and I didn’t talk for two years.
Things had cooled down when we did start talking again, Yiaya and Mary made up and I was once again welcome in Beth’s home. It was a good thing because right around then I’d told my parents that my uncle was molesting me.(See “Some Things You Can’t Forgive) He lived in another state but we’d visit his family or they’d visit us twice a year. After I’d told my parents, they continued to host my uncle at our house but I was free to stay elsewhere. Mary provided a safe haven for the duration of my uncle’s visits. She continued to welcome me until my early twenties, when I moved out of my parents’ house.
Mary wasn’t the perfect mom, but she did a lot of things right. Both of her girls were adopted, as was I, and Beth and her sister never talked about their “real” mothers. They didn’t ask many questions about where they came from and they never wanted to search for their birth parents. Beth told me that Mary had a book about being adopted and she read it to her daughters, answering any questions they had. Just so you know how that can go, I, on the other hand, was told I was adopted by a neighbor boy and laid in bed at night wishing my “real” mother would come back for me (See “Prologue: Another Mother”).
There are some things that Mary did as a mom that I didn’t get until I had my own kids. Whenever she bought something for one kid, she’d buy something for the other, so they wouldn’t cry or fight. My mom thought that was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. My mom had one child. As a mom of two small children, I can tell you that giving one to each may not be the best practice but it sure buys a lot of sanity around the house.
When Beth was old enough to work, she sold trendy clothes at the mall and bought a new wardrobe with her employee discount. If her mom thought an outfit was too slutty or otherwise inappropriate, the garments would get “lost” in the wash. At the time, Beth complained that she’d used her own money to buy the clothes so her mother had no right to take them and I’d wholeheartedly agreed. My daughter’s only six and I’ve already “lost” her dress-up-broken-leg-guaranteed-high heels.
Once Beth and I grew up and moved out, whenever I visited my parents, I’d always stop by Beth’s parents’ house. Her parents were always glad to see me. My family spent a few Thanksgivings with Mary’s, especially when my mom got sick. At a Thanksgiving many years ago, Mary scolded me because I didn’t call and visit my parents often enough. I was touched to be included in the people she nagged. When I got married the second time, she said “I’m so happy. I’ve been praying for it.” Thinking about that still makes me cry. I barely saw her anymore and still she was praying for me to fall in love.
I didn’t see Mary much as she got older and her health started to decline. Beth and I text every day, so I always heard how she was doing. A few years ago, she and her husband sold their house and moved in with Beth’s sister, so they weren’t my dad’s next-door neighbors anymore. I think the last time I saw her was at my mom’s funeral, five years ago. And now I’m headed to hers.
Mary was a huge influence in my life. She taught me how to be neighborly; how to be generous; and how to make friends into family. The wisdom she shared stays with me today, and I’ll never forget her. Rest in peace, Mary. I hope you and Yiaya are chatting it up in Heaven.