Sunday, June 16, 2013

When, Still

"When, Still"

When he was twenty-three and boyishly handsome,

he asked his young wife, “Will you still love me many years from now,

when my hair is sparse and my beard is gray?”


“I will love you then, yes.”


When he was thirty-five and his arms

could pick her up and lay her down on their bed,

he asked his pretty wife, “Will you still love me many years from now,

when my arms and back are too weak to carry you?”


“I will love you then, yes.”


When he was fifty and his legs

could climb the stairs to bring her flowers on Sunday mornings,

he asked his beautiful wife, “Will you still love me many years from now,

when I can no longer plant the roses that grow in the garden?”


“I will love you then, yes.”


When he was seventy-one and he could take her

to all her favorite places in the world,

he asked his lovely wife, “Will you still love me many years from now,

when the only place I wish to be is home?”


“I will love you even then, yes.”


When he was eighty-five, and his eyes began to fail,

he asked his faithful wife, “Will you still love me when I can no longer

see how beautiful you are?”


“I will love you then, yes. I love you now. I’ve loved you always.


When he died, and she buried him in the town where

they had spent their lives, she imagined him asking her,

“Will you still love me when I am gone?”

At his grave she stood on unsteady legs and answered him.


“You loved me when I was young and pretty.

You loved me when my bones ached and when dark shadows

formed under my eyes. You loved me as I became forgetful and when I cried

for our children moving away.


But of all the days I loved you, I loved you most

when you worried I might not.”


In all the thousand days that followed, she tended

the garden, and placed flowers in a vase by her bed;

She traveled to the places he had not yet taken her,

and carried his picture in her purse.


In all the thousand nights that followed, she closed her eyes to sleep,

dreamed of him standing in the garden,

looking as he did when he was twenty-three,

until one night he held his arms out to her and smiled.


She went, because it was time.

And the garden bloomed.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Missing Mary Boies

On a cool fall day in 1986 I received a phone call regarding the shocking death of a dear friend.  I had known Mary for ten years, and lived with her for the first three of them. I was holding Cliff, my then-eight-month-old son, watching as Ken was about to take the air conditioner out of the kitchen window of our first apartment in Port Chester. It’s an odd thing to remember, the removal of an air conditioner. If you ask what I was doing when JFK was killed or where I was on 9/11, I could tell you those circumstances as well. Details small and large become interwoven with tragedy, vivid and enduring bits of memory that complete a story. I stood in my tiny kitchen with the phone to my ear, wondering how in the world she could be gone.  Cliff and I stood at the now unobstructed window, staring out at the trees and sky in silent remembrance. The last time I had seen Mary was soon after Cliff was born. She stopped by my apartment for a visit, before catching a train to the Buffalo suburb where her mother lived. By then she had moved to California, far from the cold climes where she had grown up.

She’s been gone twenty-seven years, but in my middle age I miss her more instead of less. I miss her voice but I can still hear it, the deep, confident tone and the distinctive Buffalo accent. In all this time I have not stopped wishing to sit with her once again, to talk long into the night about all the things we’ve done and seen. My friendship with her made a difference in the way I lead my life.  She taught me not to be afraid of becoming a grown-up.  I’ve not had a friend like her since, and likely won’t again.

“Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty.” That was Mary E. Boies, the person who immediately came to mind when I read the Sicilian proverb in a writing journal I own. She had no reservations about telling me the truth. She was funny like that. Never one to keep her opinions to herself, there were occasions in our time as roommates when I failed to honor the roommate contract in some way-- I hadn’t cleaned up after myself for instance, or she was annoyed with my boyfriend for overstaying his welcome--when Mary spoke up like the head of the household, no holding back. After the boyfriend graduated and left Buffalo to return home, I was fairly consumed by student-teaching and developed a mad crush on my cooperating teacher (the term used at the time to describe the teacher-mentor in the classroom) The mad crush lasted for the entire semester, and it concerned her. When I started with the “Mr. Goraj-this” and “Mr. Goraj-that”, she saw the dreamy far-away look in my eyes and warned me to snap out of it. In matters requiring the sensibility usually reserved for grown-ups, Mary excelled. Sometimes I think she burst out of her mother’s womb already filled with the wisdom of a woman, skipping over the awkward years when one makes most of the dumb mistakes of youth. She was ahead of her time, living her dream, like a bigger, blonder version of Mary Tyler Moore’s Mary Richards. She even had the same hat, the one Mary Tyler Moore throws up into the air, come to think of it.  

 I first met Mary in the winter of 1976 when I answered an ad thumb-tacked onto the commuter board, the type with phone number tear-offs at the bottom. She had hand-written the words with a fine-point Sharpie on sturdy construction paper, “Looking for a third roommate—female only”.  Her sign, adorned with her signature graceful bold lettering, stood out among the messy, loose leaf-ball-point-pen signs. We made plans for an interview to take place the next day.

The house was located on busy Elmwood Avenue, a mostly residential area on the main road near our college in Buffalo. Across the street was a submarine sandwich place, a Laundromat and a small convenience store. On the next block was a restaurant named BullFeathers, where Mary and I would later splurge on what were possibly the best Buffalo chicken wings I’ve ever tasted.

I was nineteen years old, na├»ve, and desperate to find housing after my first apartment didn’t work out. At the interview, I assured her I was not unruly or into self-destructive extra-curricular activities. She trusted that I would be able to pay the rent and utility bills on time. She smiled at me, and made me feel comfortable. Not easy, considering my generalized anxiety and the fact she had a prepared list of questions and house-rules in her hands. We liked each other right away, and I moved into the second floor walk-up right after the Christmas break. To this day, I can’t believe my good fortune.  It was a great apartment, more roomy and cozy than my last place, with a balcony perfect for the consumption of alcohol and people-watching.  Other roommates would come and go over the next three years, but Mary and I remained faithful to our commitments to school and to each other. We got along like sisters, groaning about the amount of schoolwork we had to do, drawing up schedules for bathroom cleaning, and planning the occasional beer and wings party. We’d have hilarious conversations about guys, student-teaching, our third roommate, and the relentless snow. She loved Joni Mitchell and I was obsessed with K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

We didn’t have much in common, really. We got along well because she had a kind heart and an irreverent attitude, two qualities I found appealing. She once talked me into accompanying her to a strip club, where men in skimpy outfits danced provocatively on a five-foot-square “stage” made of cheap plywood.  I was certainly a strip club virgin, and I couldn’t remove the shocked look from my face once the show began. Naturally, Mary thought my expression was priceless, and I didn’t hear the end of it for weeks afterward. My mother doesn’t know this, but Mary and I dared each other to stuff dollar bills into the nether regions of their barely-there thongs. It was odd, it was weird, it was funny, and a little uncomfortable, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.  

I’m not sure why Mary liked me; perhaps she enjoyed being a mentor, and I was like an empty shell waiting to be filled with all the life I hadn’t yet experienced or understood. My innocence, my tendency to follow instead of lead, and my general lack of worldly knowledge put me at risk of screwing up royally. She was only a couple of years older than I, but she had a strong mothering instinct; she handled all the bills and dealt with the landlord. I was immature and mostly clueless about such things. She nurtured and encouraged me, gave me advice and was interested in what I was doing. She seemed to know all the answers.

After she graduated, she chose to remain at 1021 Elmwood Avenue with me and our most recent roommate.  One day, Mary came home in tears. She had found a job as a long-term substitute teacher in one of the local high schools and the kids had been giving her a hard time. Mary was a big girl, but she didn’t have the kind of tough exterior one would need to work with the occasional smart aleck. I thought she was  beautiful, but I don’t think she was comfortable in her curvy body at the time. After four years of working towards her secondary education degree and finishing with honors, she began the process of reinventing herself.  Teaching was in her blood and she was good at it. Ever the optimist she made lemonade out of lemons by working with college students instead.  By that time I had graduated and had moved back home to Westchester, where I found a job teaching junior high school English. Eventually she moved to Hawaii to work at a college as a dorm director; she had found her niche.  

The following year she moved to California to work, again as a dorm director. She was working on her second Masters degree in teaching writing.  I still have a few of the cards she sent me from her home in Arcata. One of them alluded to wanting to experience life as fully as she could. I believe she didn’t see herself growing old. I dismissed it as nonsense, but it wasn’t the first time I had heard her voice her concerns. Because she’d had an older brother who died young, Mary felt a longing for adventure, and a true appreciation for each day in the event a long life would not be her destiny. It was eerily prophetic.

In one of her letters dated 11/6/1984, she asked a question, “Dear ‘Ugly’ (her pet name for me), my thoughts have been with you a lot lately--is there something new? Love, Mary.” I hadn’t yet told her I was pregnant with my first baby.  And when Cliff was born, she was happy for me, giving me the advice and encouragement that was her specialty. She didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that my baby was born with Down syndrome. It didn’t seem to matter.  “You and Ken are lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have you.” I hope she knew how grateful I felt to hear those words.

 Our all-too-brief friendship remains a jewel in my box of memories.  I can’t explain how it’s possible to love a ghost more and more as I grow older but I do. I especially miss Mary on the days l feel most alone, days where I dwell on what I don’t have, or days I doubt my abilities to write or to teach. I could sure use her advice, though she’d probably just tell me to snap out of it.

She was one of the strongest people I have ever known. But at thirty-one years old, driving her car on a dark, wet and winding California highway, she lost her life. My guardian angel through my college years, Mary had become my ethereal, true guardian angel dressed in white wings.

I still keep in touch with Mary’s sister, Annette. She’s the only connection I have to Mary now. But every so often I sense her big, blond presence and I swear I can hear her voice, “Hey, Ugly, wipe that dirt off your face--it’s not a good look for you.”