My fondest memory of Mary is the time we cleaned out the attic. Mary was my housekeeper, nanny, amateur therapist, master chef, accomplice, and mother figure after my own had passed away. She and I got each other. It didn’t matter that she was nearly 20 years my senior and of a different race; we had an unspoken connection. If she didn’t like what I was wearing to work or how I had “done up” my hair, she merely had to mutter a “Hmmph” to send me back to the bedroom. My food was bland, she announced, while her “smothered” baked chicken, thick with creamy, pepper-flecked brown gravy, made our family swoon.
It was her idea to attack the attic and her idea to guzzle a concoction of grapefruit juice and vodka during the chore to “cut the dust.” We wound up rolling around on the floorboards howling with laughter: a soulful black granny and a yuppie white housewife—two unfortunate stereotypes by today’s standards, yet we reveled in them then. We had to hold our arms around each other as we wobbled back downstairs.
When my two rambunctious boys misbehaved, I would run myself ragged, threatening and hollering. She, on the other hand, needed only display a wooden spoon, the mere threat of the kitchen weapon enough to remedy any wrongdoing. When my older son refused to get ready for religious school, she drove off, leaving him behind, arms flailing. There was no guff with Mary, but, regardless, I sometimes fretted my kids loved her even more than they did me.
Mary left our employ a couple of decades ago, once the kids were grown. I cried for weeks, bereft and alone, missing my tower of strength and confidante. We stayed in touch via phone conversations and occasional visits when her health declined. Even after a few touch-and-go hospital stays, she always bounced back, no surprise if you knew her.
I had just mailed my annual belated birthday gift—she turned 84 this year—when her daughter called, well after 10 one night. Mary was critically ill, and although she had implored her family not to worry me, they decided I needed to know. It was pancreatic cancer, stage four, spread to her liver.
I had promised Mary countless times since my retirement that I’d be by to pick her up for lunch but had never made good on the vow. There would always be time for the outing, I had rationalized. Now, I would run to her side to profess my love and gratitude. A visit like this, though, betrays mixed motives. Is a last call to benefit the suffering—to help them tidy up loose ends and evoke cherished memories? Or is the call for the benefit of the still-healthy visitor—a chance to make up for lost time, soothe a guilty conscience, glean a final bit of learning and advice? I hoped my stopover would accomplish the former, although I couldn’t help but silently admit the latter. Seeing her was as much for me as it would be for her.
When I arrived, I found a houseful of loved ones, a startling reminder that as Mary had rounded out our family, she was nurturing her own, with five children and a bevy of cherished grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren: 50 in all. A brother, jolly in the face of tragedy, offered inside jokes, while a sister-in-law stirred something fragrant on the stove. Mary’s modest home overflowed not just with company, but with devotion. Her children welcomed me as their “sister,” one who didn’t belong but, oddly enough, did.
I traipsed into her room, where I found her on the edge of the bed, wearing a pink robe and fuzzy pajama bottoms. “How do you feel?” I asked, stupidly, trying to find the right words. “Like death on a cracker,” she answered, and then, “Hmmph.” I checked my sweater, my shoes, my handbag—did the outfit not pass muster?
I don’t know who comforted whom that late-summer afternoon. We chuckled once again about “our” boys, how fate had dealt them mischievous children of their own to raise. I presented photos of the three grandchildren, which she savored, running her fingers over their faces. She seemed to like my gift of a soft, baby-blue throw, but I suddenly wished I had thought of something unrelated to her weakened state. She had said she wanted to reupholster her dining-room chairs; I should have ordered fun fabric instead! Was it my obligation to offer hope—or to acknowledge her condition frankly? I didn’t know. All I wanted was to climb in bed beside her, lay my head on her shoulder, and cry, but I didn’t. I sat primly and kidded, reminisced, and gossiped.
She wouldn’t talk ugly “smack” about folks we knew and told me she believed in one God for us all—“white, black, Christian, Jew, blind, and crazy.” When He was ready for her, He would come. Debilitating chemo had no place in her life plan. “Put death on your calendar,” she warned. “Be ready for it.” I asked how to prepare, but she didn’t answer. I should know that myself: by living the way she did, earning trust and love, doing the right thing, always being honest and true. I cared too much about money, she said, and I listened. Was she right? I still needed her to set me straight. She was at peace; I was not.
I left amid hugs from my adopted siblings, feeling unsettled. Mary had once taught me to add melted butter to my cornbread mix to make the final product moist, and I had thought the tip valuable. Now I realized what she had really given me: an example of righteousness, faith, and courage. Unable to say goodbye, I promised to return to take her to lunch, knowing I probably would not.
Epilogue: Mary Rose Guthrie passed away on Sept. 27. Paul spoke at her funeral.
Illustration by Andrea Eberbach
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue.