When I think of Mary, I remember her smile most of all. In fact I can’t conjure her face in my mind without seeing her smile. Mary loved to talk; a few minutes on the phone could turn into an hour. And yet as much as she liked to talk, her smile said even more.
After her death several of us gathered in the choir room to share stories and look at pictures, part of the many photos posted on facebook. And someone pointed out how in each photo, no matter who she was with, Mary looked like she was with her best friend. As her family says, “Mary could get on an elevator and have a new best friend by the second floor.” All because her smile radiated warmth and love.
But not always. Catch Mary on a hot day - and hot days for Mary were anything above 65 degrees - and the smile turned into a forced look. Mary and I took a group of youth to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation - 100 degrees in the shade. Mary threw herself into the work, yet the heat got to her. I saw a lot of strained smiles on that trip which said to me, “I’m trying to love this but it’s hard.”
And she could give a wry smile. As I’m sure she did at one family occasion. Mary agreed to bring a homemade ice cream cake to a gathering down at Lake Park. The cake plate was too big for the cooler, so it rested at an angle on its ride. By the time Mary drove from Fox Point to Lake Park, the cake had melted and slid off the plate into a ruined puddle, a creme anglaise of good intentions.
Perhaps the smiles I recall best were those she had when telling a story about herself. Like the one when she told how she became an organist. One Christmas season her mother, the church organist, hurt her hand; the kind of injury musicians dread. But Christmas needs an organist. So Mary stepped in, her mother standing beside the console, and she played. An accident turned into a life-long calling, the memory of it made Mary smile.
Those smiles - strained at times, unrestrained joy at others - shape my memory of Mary.
Dante, the 13th century Italian poet, wrote the Divine Comedy; while his description of hell is renown, I treasure some of his words about heaven, and in particular the way he imagined heaven as a place of smiles. Looking around heaven, he described an innumerable crowd:
“I saw faces given up to love -
lit by Another’s lamp and their own smiles,
and gestures graced by every dignity.”
Mary’s smile will fit in that great congregation. And yet behind every smile lies a story. Her smiles were a rich treasure. And yet they came from her own struggles. Which is why, when I think of Mary, I remember not only her smile but a line from the Prophet Isaiah, “I have laid up for you rich treasures hidden in dark places.” Mary smiled so broadly because she’d faced so deeply her own dark places.
Those dark places were physical, relational, and internal. Physically Mary struggled for decades with a chronic illness, which caused her fatigue and pain, and at times immobilized her. Relationships frayed and ended. And internally, Mary didn’t always feel loved or appreciated.
As overwhelming as those issues could be, Mary dug deep to find treasure. Mary could be such a good friend because she took people as they were, without judgment. Her own dark places made her so sympathetic to others.
And I think it’s why Mary felt so at home in the gay community. Mary struggled with her own issues of self-acceptance; and so she felt a kindred spirit in the LGBT community, among people who’ve also discovered treasure hidden in darkness.
When Mary died so suddenly and accidentally, I felt at a loss for words. It seems so tragic. Mary worked hard to fix what was broken in her life, worked hard on healing and renewal, and finally reached a time when she felt loved and appreciated. It feels unfair to have her life end just at the moment the life she wanted truly began.
Yet I take comfort that she made it. She made her life what she wanted it to be. She reached for what she wanted to achieve. And she found peace in her life. I wish she could have had more time to enjoy it, but I find it inspiring that she attained it.
A weeks before her death - amid the frenetic energy of the Christmas season - Mary sent the rest of our church staff and some members a note about “Christmas Angels” at church. It spoke to me of the treasure Mary had found. I offer her words as a closing reflection on her life because it’s what I think she would say to us all this day, with a smile.
My drive home was one of continual praise
thanking God for always being in control
and surrounding me with such love and goodness
I could never have imagined.
There will always be difficult days and times
but I was reminded to trust God
and be thankful for ALL of the good in my life.
I am blessed by ALL of you.