Sundays with Mary

Miss Mary is my notoriously chatty mother-in-law. Although these days she remains pretty silent. Elderly people often do. Most days she spends her idle hours gazing out her family-room window, seated in a wheelchair, sipping from an insulated cup, in perfect quietude.

Today is no different. Our silence is only broken by the occasional sounds you often hear in an old woman’s house. A cat meowing. The faint music of Perry Como on the hifi, singing “For the Good Times.”

Mary’s hair is carnation white. Her eyes are brown. Today she wears a cashmere blouse that is only for visitors.

It’s almost hard to believe this woman can be so silent. Twenty years ago I remember this woman frequently telling her life story to various cashiers in the Piggly Wiggly. But today, however, the act of talking takes a grandiose effort. The late stages of COPD are not for wimps.

So we both remain quiet in Mary’s living room.

A cat purrs.

Perry Como is now singing “Papa Loves Mambo.”

Suddenly, our non-talking is interrupted when out of a clear sky Mary says: “Oh, I remember this song.”

Then she abruptly falls silent again. I give it a few moments to see if she says anything else. But nothing.

More sounds.

The clicking of a clock pendulum.

An air conditioner compressor kicks on.

The cat whines.

“Yes,” she goes on. “I used to have a forty-seven Ford with a radio, and this song always played. The Ford was gray, like a whale. My granddaddy gave the car to me when I was thirteen—thirteen—if you can just imagine.”

She laughs privately then coughs.

The refrigerator hums.

The ceiling fan is rattling faintly.

The cat is rubbing against my leg.

“Yeah, I started driving that car at sixteen. But I could never start that dumb engine, was too tricky to crank. Needed someone to do it for me.”

Mary’s face is overcome by an immediate smile.

“Heavens, it was quite a car, sometimes I’d get all my girlfriends together, six or seven of us, and we’d pile into that Ford, and I’d try to get the finicky engine started.

“Sometimes we’d try to start it by putting it in neutral and pushing it down the hill behind Mother and Daddy’s house. But it still wouldn’t crank. So all us girls would be coasting downhill, doors open, screaming, like we were about to wreck.

“My mother would find us at the bottom of the hill, stuck in that stupid car. She’d be so aggravated with us for acting so silly.”

The drone of a distant lawnmower.

The sound of a cat digging a preliminary hole in a litter box.

The sound of a cat filling this hole.

I notice Mary is staring into the middle distance. It’s almost as though her mind is weaving through another era. Her eyes are bright. She is grinning.

“Oh, I was so young. So very young. When I left Brewton for Huntingdon College, about ten of us girls said goodbye to our parents and piled into that old car and rode Highway Thirty-One all the way to Montgomery.

“That same day, we drove past a chain gang working on the side of the highway. We saw guards standing watch over the workers, holding shotguns, it was somewhere near Greenville. And all the young laborers were swinging pickaxes, wearing stripes.

“‘A chain gang!’ yelled one of my girlfriends. ‘Slow down!’

“So I slowed the car down. Then all my girlfriends started digging around in our pocketbooks.”

“What were they digging for?” I ask.

Mary laughs. “I’ll tell you what they were rummaging for. Our smokes. When we drove past the prisoners, we leaned out the windows and threw all our cigarettes to the prisoners and waved at them.

“Lord’a mercy, our cigarettes went flying like confetti, but we made their day. We bent out the windows and blew kisses to them and tried to make them smile. And we heard the prisoners cheer and holler back at us. We were so young. So pretty. So dumb.”

Paul Anka is singing, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder.”

The cat is still in the litter box, exhibiting symptoms of gastrointestinal distress.

Mary sighs and says, “I drove that car all through college. People in Montgomery knew my car when they saw me coming. Whenever the policemen saw me driving, they would halt traffic for me because they knew my piece-of-junk engine would stall and shut off at stop signs”

“The cops would stop traffic just for you?” I ask.

“Mmm-hmm. Blew their whistles and waved me forward with a wink. Montgomery was a different place back then.” She shakes her head. “The whole world was different then.”

Eddie Fisher is now singing “Dungaree Doll.”

The clock chimes.

The AC fan kicks off.

“That was a long time ago,” she says warmly, staring into a sun-filled window. “Long, long time ago.”

Mary’s skin is thinner than it used to be, flecked with dark spots and visible veins. Her arthritic hands have a difficult time grasping small objects. Life is getting harder. She is on oxygen. Hospice keeps tabs on her each day.

Yet she is smiling. It’s a unique smile that only the elderly are afforded. A smile that involves more than just one’s face. This particular smile is located within the chest region, and it indicates a life lived. A life filled with beauty, but also grief, humor, fun, joy, and loss.

“You know,” says Mary, “when I close my eyes at night, I’m still her. I’m still that same young girl inside.”

Then we go back to perfect silence.

44 comments

  1. Grant Burris - March 15, 2021 7:07 am

    That was great Sean. I really liked it. I listened to my Dad’s stories. Many times. Now, I miss those stories. Thank you for listening to Mary.

    Reply
  2. Sandi. - March 15, 2021 7:36 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with Grant: Thank you, Sean, for listening to Mary talk. Some future day you will reflect back and be so glad that you did.

    Reply
  3. Phil Jennings - March 15, 2021 9:06 am

    Definitely a Sean masterpiece.
    Thank you.
    But then, you had a beautiful character already developed.
    God bless Mary and her wonderful memories.
    I certainly enjoyed your observations and her life.

    Reply
  4. Bob Brenner - March 15, 2021 9:55 am

    Such a sweet caring tribute! Thanks from all the elderly people for taking us back in time to see those by gone pictures appear in our hearts and minds ❤️!

    Reply
  5. MaryJane Breaux - March 15, 2021 10:22 am

    Oh my heart, I read your words and savor them. Thank you and Miss Mary for this beautiful piece.

    Reply
  6. Gloria Ann Collier - March 15, 2021 10:24 am

    Huntington College is spelled with a d , not T. Miss Mary knows that. Huntington rather than Huntington.
    But a very nice column! Thank you for beginning many of my days! And I graduated from Huntington in 1960!

    Reply
    • Gloria Ann Collier - March 15, 2021 10:27 am

      Sorry, correct spelling is Huntingdon
      Auto correct tried to prevent which probably happened to you!

      Reply
  7. Barbara - March 15, 2021 10:28 am

    I agree with Grant, Sandi and Phil. You invited us into Mary’s surroundings, creating a way for every reader to be present. Listening is a gift but you’ve taken it beyond hearing by revealing the beautiful life of Mary we’ve all come to enjoy. I loved my Dad’s stories of his family life. I miss him dearly. Thanks for sharing some special moments. Hugs to Mary, you & Jamie.

    Reply
  8. Nell Thomas - March 15, 2021 11:02 am

    Sean- You captured it well.
    All too familiar- experienced very simular scenario more than once- last time to the tune of Glenn Miller.

    Reply
  9. Suzi - March 15, 2021 11:09 am

    So happy her memories were heard, Mary was a real, vibrant person not defined by arthritis, COPD and a wheelchair

    Reply
  10. Xan - March 15, 2021 11:16 am

    I love Mother Mary. And I miss my mama so much and my grandmother too. Your stories are universal and so private and intimate at the same time. Miss Mary’s stories could be my mother’s. She was a Huntington girl too. Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  11. Heidi - March 15, 2021 11:41 am

    Mother Mary is such a treasure. For those of us that have lost our Mothers & Grandmas, we so appreciate you sharing her with us. ❤️

    Reply
  12. Bar - March 15, 2021 12:38 pm

    I appreciate the phrase ‘perfect silence,’ knowing now that’s what my beloved and I shared in the last few months of his life. When everything has been said, when words become an intrusion: perfect silence.

    Reply
  13. Susan Ross - March 15, 2021 12:40 pm

    We’ve all known and loved some “Mary’s” in our lives. Now I’m getting closer to being one!🤣

    Reply
  14. Mary - March 15, 2021 12:55 pm

    Thank you, Sean. You have such a wonderful gift and I am so happy I found you.

    Reply
  15. Jan - March 15, 2021 1:00 pm

    Beautiful, just beautiful – Mother Mary, her life and your ability to share it with us. I am fast approaching Mother Mary’s place in life. Thank you!

    Reply
  16. Jimmi Pate - March 15, 2021 1:04 pm

    This makes my heart smile…Thanks for sharing Mother Mary stories. I have Mother Thelma stories that I treasure.

    Reply
  17. Vi Augustine - March 15, 2021 1:28 pm

    We are the same age inside when we remember- I’m 70 & never feel like it – memories can make us any age again

    Reply
  18. Amy Mack - March 15, 2021 1:40 pm

    Though I’ve never met Miss Mary, I just love her. Yall are so very blessed to have each other. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, it sounds like you already know. 🙂

    Reply
  19. Becky Kaufman - March 15, 2021 1:54 pm

    I love your Mother-in-law. thanks for letting us listen to her too.

    Reply
  20. Allison Gilmore - March 15, 2021 2:14 pm

    This story totally grabbed my heartstrings and opened my tear ducts.  These last few sentences were especially moving and insightful and — to be very candid — made me want to begin working on that smile he described that begins in the chest so that when I am ready to admit that I am “elderly,” that’s what people will see when they look at me.  

    “…Yet she is smiling. It’s a unique smile that only the elderly are afforded. A smile that involves more than just one’s face. This particular smile is located within the chest region, and it indicates a life lived. A life filled with beauty, but also grief, humor, fun, joy, and loss…”

    And I firmly believe the truth of this last statement by Mary.  We’re always the same person inside — we’re all of our ages all at the same time inside.
    “…You know,” says Mary, “when I close my eyes at night, I’m still her. I’m still that same young girl inside.”

    Reply
  21. Elsie - March 15, 2021 2:38 pm

    As an 88yr old woman, this took me back to my youth with so many good memories! I will also forward this to my friend, who was my roommate in nurses training; we still laugh about the dumb things we did way back then!! Thanks for reminding us that youth lives on!!

    Reply
  22. Judy Nelson - March 15, 2021 2:48 pm

    I absolutely love this. And Mother Mary, too. You are blessed to have her.

    Reply
  23. Christina - March 15, 2021 3:01 pm

    I love that there was space for her to reflect and be that forever young girl 💜

    Reply
  24. Pat - March 15, 2021 3:17 pm

    My grand daughter is a graduate of Huntingdon…the city has changed quite a bit since Mother Mary’s days there.

    Reply
  25. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 15, 2021 3:25 pm

    💖

    Reply
  26. H J Patterson - March 15, 2021 3:44 pm

    After all, the business of life is creating memories, because in the end, that’s all you have. Mrs. Mary has done a fine job in her creations, now she can enjoy them.

    Reply
  27. Nancy - March 15, 2021 4:12 pm

    I went to Huntingdon my freshman year. It’s a beautiful campus. Jeff Sessions was a student then, many years ago.

    Reply
  28. Ken P - March 15, 2021 4:35 pm

    I agree with Grant and Sandi. If I could hear one of my Dad’s stories, just one more time…just one more time…..

    Reply
  29. Berryman Mary M - March 15, 2021 4:36 pm

    As always, spending time with someone is the very best gift, even if it is only in silence.

    Reply
  30. Lisa Wilcox - March 15, 2021 5:03 pm

    Xoxo’s to your Miss Mary. What a great life with lots of memories, too! Thanks for sharing them!

    Reply
  31. Linda Moon - March 15, 2021 5:04 pm

    You had me at “Miss Mary”. She’s been on my mind recently. Quietude is sometimes perfect, but not because of COPD. I’m so very sorry that Mother Mary is in its late stages. Heavens….girlfriends piled up in a car. Perfect. I just received an E-Card from one of them. I blinked away tears while reading Miss Mary’s inside story. So, I’m sending you some love and smiles from my heart to yours, Girlfriend Mary!

    Reply
  32. joan moore - March 15, 2021 6:58 pm

    No one believes that it’s true, that you do feel 18 and don’t know how you got in a 67 year old body. Love you, Miss Mary!

    Reply
  33. Christopher Spencer - March 15, 2021 9:09 pm

    I was 9 when my dad was diagnosed with emphysema. He was 54. I was a ” late” child for he and my mother and I was also the last and the baby of the family.
    He had been a smoker in his younger days but his emphysema resulted mainly from working first at a paper mill and then a chemical plant long before the EPA ever existed. There is no telling what all kinds of harmful chemicals and fumes he breathed just by going to work everyday.

    His condition wasn’t real bad when he was first diagnosed and had to retire. He was free to come to not only all my Little League baseball and Boys Club football games, but he came to the practices too. I loved having him there.
    He and I also went squirrel hunting a lot, walking through the woods looking up into the trees for squirrel nests. On one hunt he twisted his ankle real bad and tumbled down a hillside. I was 10 or 11 but it was up to me to get him out of the woods and home and probably a doctor.
    He held both of our shotguns in one hand and I held his other hand with his arm wrapped across my puny shoulders and my other hand and arm wrapped around his waist.
    We slowly made it back up the hillside and to a nearby road that we began to follow home. Fortunately God blessed us with a Good Samaritan who drove by and gave us a ride home. It was a man we both knew but I can’t remember now who it was.
    Daddy was laid up a few days with a badly sprained ankle, fortunate that it was not broken.

    But as the years rolled by the emphysema got progressively worse each year. I graduated high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I finished my enlistment 4 years later, daddy was confined to a hospital bed in our living room with a machine for breathing treatments several times a day.

    On Christmas Eve 1977 my then girlfriend announced we were getting married. Daddy could not breath well enough to speak how pleased he was with our announcement, but I could see it in his eyes. I hugged him and told him I loved him.
    On December 28, 1977 I came home late after a date with my now financ’ee. I checked on Daddy as was my habit when I came in. But this night he had breathed his last and had gone home to Heaven where he could breath freely again.

    I never will forget that night, nor will I ever forget my daddy. Sorry for the long reply but your story about Miss Mary and her COPD brought it all back to me.
    I am not sad for these memories, but thankful I have them. Because I know Daddy is well and healthy in Heaven now and I know I will see him again when the Lord calls me home.

    My prayers for you, Jamie and Miss Mary. May God wrap you all in His loving and comforting arms and bless you with His peace of heart, mind and soul.
    My love to you all,
    Chris

    Reply
  34. MAM - March 15, 2021 10:28 pm

    So many times nowadays, I come up with questions I know my Mom or my Dad would have had the answers to, so this hits close to home. I’m getting to be that age that Mother Mary is. And Yes, I still feel like that young girl I once was, and sometimes I am that girl in my dreams. Thanks, Sean.

    Reply
  35. MermaidGrammy - March 16, 2021 1:39 am

    Once again, thank you! My mother died one year ago today. She told my sisters and me on several occasions how she, too, was still that young, silly girl inside. At 77, I find that I, too, am that silly girl inside. I hope, at the end, I can be as serene as Mother Mary, and that my sweet son-in-law will see in me the love that you see in her. Bless you, Sean, for bringing humanity, gentleness and love to an old lady every morning

    Reply
  36. LInda Everett - March 16, 2021 3:51 am

    Sean, I spoke to you a year ago in Fairhope, Alabama at the Page &Pallettenbook store.I told you how your writing had helped me thru the loss of my husband and mother 11 months apart in 2019. My husband died with COPD, a deadly disease that literally robs one of the ability to breathe without the assistance of oxygen and makes one so very tired just trying to take another breath. I will pray for Mother Mary as she struggles with trying to manage her physical condition. She is a strong woman and she will fight this with all the will power she has. God Bless you and Jamie as you are caregivers to this lovely woman.

    The picture you used last week in your daily post titled “HUGS” is of me getting a big hug from the great writer Sean of the South in Fairhope.
    A night I will never forget. For an entire year the hug has sustained me as it was my last hug from anyone due to the virus. Thank you for signing my copy of your book and for bring there for all of us who need to read your words everyday.

    Reply
  37. Leslie Criss - March 16, 2021 5:48 am

    Cheryl and I read you aloud each evening before we go to sleep. We laugh, we cry, we give thanks for your gifts and that you share them. This column is one of the best we have read. Eloquent. Powerful. Poignant. Thank you.
    We met you and Jamie at Off Square Books in Oxford just before the world shut down. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet you both. Keep writing.

    Reply
  38. Cyn - March 16, 2021 12:45 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you from all of us “old folks”.

    Reply
  39. Fred - March 17, 2021 7:20 pm

    Thanks for this story Sean.
    My mom turns 92 this year.
    She still doesn’t believe that she is that old.
    She has been through a lot and seen a lot.
    She lost two brothers young in life, one husband, one son, then another husband.
    She still has her sense of humor with that dry wit that she always had.
    She sits in silence a lot now too.
    Remembering days of yore.
    The days that were so full of life that now are filled with silence.
    The world keeps turning and we are still yearning.
    Tick tock goes the clock.

    Reply
  40. Lynne Hill - March 19, 2021 10:08 pm

    I so wish I could go sit with my parents and their friends and record their stories. Some of them were so funny and some were hard to hear, but I’d listen today like never before. Thanks for your stories, they sometimes make my eyes leak but that’s OK with me. Memories are wonderful.

    Reply
  41. elizabethroosje - March 20, 2021 3:52 am

    sounds like I could listen to her all day! 🙂 I’ve not been able to comment much this week – busy – but I am still reading everything you post here AND my Husband and I are praying for you, Jamie and Mother Mary EVERY day usually 3x a day at that. God bless you and hold your heart….

    Reply
  42. Vanessa Lackey - March 22, 2021 10:52 am

    Thank you for this! I’ve been reading your articles for a short while and this has actually touched apart of my life. I went to Huntington College class of ‘09. It is a strange sense of nostalgia just knowing that she and I have walked the same Halls and and probably driven around the same streets. Though they are so very different from her time there to mine.
    Thank you for all of your articles each one has been fun or inspiring and even sad but comforting. Thank you.

    Reply
  43. Christine - March 29, 2021 5:36 pm

    Ecclesiastes 3:11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has even put eternity in their heart; yet mankind will never find out the work that the true God has made from start to finish.

    Reply

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