Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 30, 2012 6:54PM

Marigolds and Mary

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Childhood memories sometimes return in the same manner a pond turns over.  A scene of peaceful beauty suddenly vomits forth unwanted material in order to cleanse itself of hidden debris.


When I was seven years old I had a favorite dress the color of buttery marigolds.  Chocolate-brown piping that trimmed the skirt and sleeves.  An appliquéd coal train chugged across its bodice.  Curls of French knots wafted from its smokestack like a lazy lasso reaching back toward the caboose.  I took great pains to keep it pristine.  I skipped reckless games at recess to preserve it stainless and wrinkle-free, suitable for another wearing.  Much as I loved to run my fingers over the smooth fabric and knotted threads, I’d take time to wipe away the sweat and grime that seemed magnetically attracted to my hands.  Finding that dress in my closet ready to wear brightened many childhood mornings. Whenever I have thought of myself as a child, I have always pictured myself in that dress--innocent, shy, and tentative. 


One summer shortly after my fortieth birthday, I flew to Minnesota to visit family.  When I stopped to lunch with my grandmother, who I had not seen in several years, she did as grandmothers do.  She talked of my father’s escapades as a boy.  She recalled how I had worked with her in her garden of gladiolas, and how I ate Grandpa’s radishes right from the dirt with just a few perfunctory swipes on my coveralls.  She pulled out mementos and picture albums, returning pieces of my childhood to me.  There, in a dusty album among pictures of nameless babies, numerous weddings, and family picnics, we found a picture of me in my favorite dress.


My reaction was immediate and visceral.  My shoulders sagged and my head nodded toward my lap at the tiny picture I held gently in my open palm.  A great weight of sadness forced the breath from my chest and twisted my stomach as I reacquainted myself with a rush of memories the black and white matte finish evoked.  The dress was as I remembered, but that child had been lost to me for years.  Was I ever so untouched?  Like many other baby boomers, my youth was marred by unspeakable tragedies that sucked the breath out of what should have been an oblivious, self-centered time.  I was a sophomore in chemistry class when the intercom announced JFK’s assassination.  Then came Dr. King and Bobby.  But the carnivorousness of life had revealed itself to me years before their martyrdoms.


It’s a harsh story and not really mine to tell.  I was merely collateral damage.  Mary Ann was a childhood friend.  We called her Mary.  Losing her was one of those cold buckets of reality often tossed upon the young.  For her mother the world became permanently frigid.  For me, a veil closed and  distanced me from the world for three decades.  An early childhood injury or disease had crippled Mary.  Her crutches always seemed an extension of her body.  She moved like a spider when she walked, needing six appendages to make progress.  Mary’s pudgy torso rested mockingly on her, overly long, useless legs.  When she was eleven and had grown enough, doctors began a series of surgeries that would eventually allow her to walk unaided.  


To the rest of us, Mary seemed privileged.  She had more toys and games than the rest of the neighborhood kids combined.  My younger sister, who we called Annie, was also a Mary Anne.  She and I always played at Mary’s.  Not only did she have a playhouse, her mother owned a roadside tavern and gas station that drew farmers and travelers from a rural area south of St. Paul.  Mary’s mother would keep us out of the establishment by supplying us with bribes each time we’d show up at the screened back door.  Marathon games of Monopoly ran on for days fueled by bar snacks and Kool-Aid doctored with extra sugar and bottled lemon juice.  In the cold Minnesota winters, we would retreat to her family’s finished basement, a sign of wealth in our small town.  We’d huddle together, continuing our summer games on a bear skin rug, an island of warmth covering the unrelenting cold of the painted concrete floor.


The final surgery took place the spring of our fifth grade year.  Mary would finally be able to join the rest of us in public school the next fall.  Once she had healed enough, I became part of her rehabilitation.  Mary used my shoulder and encouragement to begin taking her first steps.  By the end of June, she needed her crutches only for additional support as her legs strengthened little by little.  By early August, she could almost keep up with the rest of us, her crutches sometimes flung out from her body, more like wings than necessities.  Because she couldn’t be sure her legs would hold her weight at all times, she kept her training wheels handy.  Doctors had warned her that falling on her newly remodeled legs and hips could undo their work.  


Mary’s newfound freedom was like a drug.  She wanted more, so I commandeered my brothers bicycle and taught her to ride.  I rode the boys’ bike because Mary couldn’t raise her leg enough to mount it.  The bicycle served two purposes.  She could use it as a stabilizing device when standing beside it, and she could experience the joy of speed when pedaling.  If her a hip or leg proved momentarily weak, she could improvise with the remaining limbs and tires to support herself.


I can see her clearly on the last day of her life.  A tight grasp of each handlebar as she tentatively lifted her right leg through the opening in the frame.  This was the most precarious part of the maneuver because her weight was all on one leg.  Mary wore a faded red sun suit, thin from frequent washings, and straining at the seams from a recent growth spurt.  Her long bare legs in white anklets and sturdy black shoes quivered as much in anticipation as instability.  


Mary had mastered riding a few days earlier, but I’d been cautioned not to tire her out by riding for too long.  That day we had permission to ride a half mile along a little used dirt road to Bowen’s Woods for a picnic and, for the first time, Mary was going to have dinner at my house.  The humidity was cloying, a thin layer of perspiration cloaked every move and fused clothing to skin.  The only relief came as we increased our speed and pedaled as fast as Mary’s reborn legs could handle.  


We left our bikes alongside the road and retreated into the shadowy underbrush of the woods.  Random branches served as stabilizers whenever Mary needed extra support.  Roaming the woods had been a common experience for me, but it was all new to her.  As the afternoon wore on, I became impatient with her lack of mobility and constant amazement.  More than once I left her behind to move forward on my own.  I recall her calling out to me once when I got so far ahead we lost sight of each other.  The hint of fear in her voice brought me back, but I took some childish pleasure in my advantage, and I teased her, “Don’t be such a baby.”


With the frequent rest breaks and a post lunch nap, we lost track of time, but the angle of the sun through the foliage reminded us that we had promised to be back at my house by dinnertime.  We scrambled, as best as Mary could, back to our bikes and stormed down the gravel road.  As we approached the intersection, I taunted Mary over my right shoulder, “I’ll race ya.”  


My house was just a few hundred feet on the other side of the state highway.  I turned off the paved road onto our dirt driveway and skidded sideways, nearly losing my balance.  As I tossed my brother’s bike on the ground and headed for the back door, a loud, sharp pop and then screeching tires stopped the world.  I turned to see my father running from the garage I had just passed.  He was headed toward the highway.  I ran through our neighbor’s yard following others as they were drawn to the far side of the road.


When I reached the roadway, my father was bent over Mary, his fingers pressed to the side of her neck.  Her dark brown eyes peered skyward with no spark. Blood trickled from her nose and ears, wet the crotch of her sun suit, and puddled around her body.  One useless leg lay twisted grotesquely askew, and the face I’d seen flushed with excitement just moments before was now devoid of color.  There was a time I claimed I had witnessed the accident.  A vivid image of Mary catapulting through the air.  Her body somersaulting, flying like a cartoon figure with arms and legs thrashing wildly about, contorted in ways no live body could sustain.  That couldn’t have been true, but for a time it was necessary for me to interject myself that way into the reality, torturing myself with additional details.


That last image of my friend imprinted itself on me.  The horror of it was left there to fester, no first aid was applied.  My world changed at that moment.  It was as if I took a step back into another realm.  A translucent shell formed around me separating me from the rest of the world.  I became an observer, watching through the eyes of the young girl that everyone else recognized as me.  


I recall answering a few questions from a policeman.  I saw the unlucky woman who had been blinded by the setting sun.  She pounded her fists on her thighs and pulled at her own hair.  “I never saw her at all,” she anguished. “She came out of nowhere!”  I recall Mary’s mother, in a dirty apron, falling to her knees and muttering Mary’s name over and over like a prayer.  Like a damaged record, my memory skips from that scene to my father driving  me and the other honorary pallbearers to the funeral a few days later. The other children in the back seat laughed at some joke and I turned to chastise them.  My father shushed me, “They’re just kids.”  His answer implied I was somehow different than my peers.  I wasn’t sure what he expected of me.  I guessed he meant that I would handle it myself.  So I did. No one seemed to notice that I never cried, never asked questions, only withdrew into myself as I buried those images under a patina of normalcy


Three decades later, the summer my daughter, Mary Anne, was eleven, I repeatedly woke up in a sweat with nightmares of her as a ghostly apparition.    She was away from me for the first time, spending the summer with her father in a small town several hours away.  At first I thought the dreams were premonitions, and I felt compelled to call her with a plea.  But before I could voice my warning, the image of Mary’s lifeless body came to me in a flash.  Like a pond turning over and cleansing itself, the buried memory resurfaced. I watched the highway tragedy rewind in slow motion, a camera panning the unholy scene and then a close up of Mary in her red jump suit, her life blood oozing out onto the gravel and asphalt.  With a rush of relief I listened to my Mary Anne’s adventures and reminded her to brush her teeth before hanging up the phone.  My hands began to shake as I lowered myself to the floor.  I sat cross legged on the cool linoleum and leaned back against the metal cabinetry, a welcome contrast to the heat within me.  Grateful tears wet my face as I let go a mother’s fears, realizing they were only disguised recollections.  And, after thirty years, I finally cried for the loss of my friend.


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Wow so many emotions how terribly hard at your age at any age this must have been. I just don't have the right words here but I hope writing it out and I loved the part where you let your daughter go and well I just don't have the words, except how sorry I am for all of you back then.
I am blown away by your writing that unfolds in layer after tangible layer, leaving me in tears at the end with you, sitting cross legged somewhere in my youth. It's amazing how events effect and change us, especially when we are impressionable, but one day something happens to break a certain paradigm and hopefully set us free. I had a dress very similar to the one you describes; mine was in the color of a canteloup with brown trimming. . .
Funny thing...I was just over at your blog commenting while you were here, evidently. Eerie...Most of the stuff I write is old pain that festered too long. I'm working some of my experiences into a novel about overcoming the crap in your life so you can live it. It's all good.
Oops. That last comment was for Lunchlady 2.

FusunA: I am glad the writing worked that way for you. I am trying to improve my writing skills so that some of my experiences will come across effectively as I weave them into a novel.
You really can tell a story. It's amazing how you started with a memory of a dress and wound up here. Your childhood Mary Anne must have been so thrilled to be able to ride, fast, down that road with you.
Laura, I am pleased that you appreciated the storytelling. But, truth be told, I started to cry a little at the rest of your post. We had a great time that day. I forget that at times. I forget too often to remember the good times we had.
One episode I have had with a beautiful dress also is of a funeral I attended.My best friend in kindergarten had died of toxemia.
It was an extremely hot summer day.The memories of this funeral haunt me to this day.
Very strange that we can have the same experiences.
Your style is excellent
Powerful writing, beauty. How painful and shocking this must have been for you. The story unfolds with such grace and precision.
that's a life changer, no doubt about it. it was in your body all those years so even that was never the same. well told.
Powerful writing. ~r
This memory of losing your friend has helped me to see what my daughter is going through. Her best friend died in a senseless automobile accident last Friday the thirteenth. Thank you.
P.S. Congratulations on the much-deserved EP.
Heidi and Miguela: Sharing thoughts on a tragedy is helpful in the grieving process. It's unfortunate my parents were both emotionally retarded themselves. They might have been able to help me--as, Miguela, you are helping your daughter--deal with the loss. Early experiences color our lives. My life mantra is "save the children". When I reflect on my own childhood, I understand why I was driven to heed that directive.
Heidi, Erika, Ben, and Joan: Your encouragement helps me finish the novel I have been writing. It began as a memoir, but an agent, who liked my writing, told me a memoir of a nobody (my synthesis of her comments here) with no great tragedy or current event connection would be hard to sell. That and a few family members who were unhappy with my proclivity for sharing family secrets convinced me that fiction was a better path. When I see that agent again in August, I will present her with my revisioned life. More full of fiction than my subjective truth. Still, if I can bring it off, it will have the truthes I have learned.

I just finished such a novel myself. It took four years and eight drafts. No doubt, you are more proficient than I ever thought of being. I see it in your style. Go for it. Stay with the feelings. Let others "reign you in." The first to benefit must be ourselves. We are like actors working up our parts, if we don't believe in them, nobody else will.
Beauty 1947

"My life mantra is "save the children".

...so is mine.
I am glad you can now grieve. That is a big sign of healing - right?
Ben: Good luck with the novel. You’ll let us all know when it’s ready for purchase, I presume.

Heidi: We have a good mantra—probably ours because of similar life experiences.

Wren: Once I broke through to the other side, the healing began. That was over twenty years ago…the breakthrough. No pain, no gain. I’ve gained a lot since then—in more ways than one.

Tiffany: Megwitch (Ojibwe for thank you—also spelled miigwech and several other variations. That’s one of the hazards of trying to put a centuries-old, spoken language down on paper or keyboard). Your words encourage me to finish the book.
Oh, beauty, man oh man. What a thing to experience. And how elegantly and delicately you presented it. Go, novel, go! Or I could see this as being part of a collection of essays...you so well frame this in a shorter form. Anyhow, hadn't gotten too caught up with your work, but will now...
Helvetica, Thanks to the third power for your comments on several posts. I had thought about a collection of esssays at one time, but the same agent who rejected the memoir said a book of essays like these would never sell. I will leave the essays for my children--they might help them understand some of their mother's failings. The novel is moving along nicely. I have written and published academic stuff before but fiction writing is a very different process--very organic. Posting at OS has been a great motivator, thanks to responses--especially those from other writers--like you.
Hi. This story is simply beautiful. I had such a hellish work week that I read the post yesterday a.m. and didn't get the chance to comment until now. The story as a whole stayed with me all day. The writing is all-of-a-piece and so well-wrought; full of lasting images and emotion that's vivid but at the same time guarded--which seems to increase its value somehow, its worth. I have truly admired everything of yours I've read so far, even as I marvel at the sadness of the experiences described.
MWG: You comments were well worth waiting for. I hope your students appreciate you. You words about my writing were illuminating and encouraging. I came to OS in search of feedback. I am not a joiner--maybe because most of my adult life was as busy as yours--so finding a critic group that I could work with has not worked. I'm not into small talk or ego battles--and the few I tried turned out to be one or the other or a combo. So OS--and reader/writer types, like you, are a wonderful gift. Megwitch.
Excellent to say the least...
.........(¯`v´¯) (¯`v´¯)
............... *•.¸.•* ♥⋆★•❥ Peace and ♥ L☼√Ξ ☼ ♥
⋆───★•❥Have a Lovely Day ☼ .¸¸.•*`*•.♥ (ツ)
Emotions....hidden, will eventually rise again. Sad story, so very vividly told.
Just read your post and I'd say I can relate, except I can only sympathize. The only people I lost as a child were my grandmothers, great aunts and uncles. I didn't lose a close friend or even an contemporary acquaintance until after high school. It then seemed to rain body bags. I lost three to drug overdoses, one to a motorcycle accident, another to an armed robber, and four came back dead from Viet Nam.

I can relate to your delayed grief.: In 1970 I lost Janis. I'd seen her perform for free at folk clubs in Texas, and ran into her again on the streets of Haight-Ashbury in 1967 just after she got suddenly famous. When she died in Hollywood, I lived less than five miles from her hotel. I was sad and pissed because booze and drugs took another talent: Hendrix died a couple of weeks earlier and to complete the mortal cycle of threes, Jim Morrison offed himself in June of '71.

Over twenty years went by before I grieved for Janis, it was at my birthday party in the People's Republic of China but that's another tale...

jmac1949, I'd like to hear about the birthday party. Janis was one of a kind. How lucky you were to have known her. She always struck me as a woman with demons she was trying to exorcise. Hendrix, Morrison...I can hear them in my mind as I type. I had just barely begun to listen to Amy Winehouse when she exited. You were obviously born about the time I was. I lost friends in Viet Nam. They turned my sweet brother...I wrote about him in an earlier post...into a sniper. It left a deep scar on him. I have a post coming up in May that is about a beautiful boy who never made it to twenty. I am holding it until the anniversary of his death. Too much death and destruction in our formative years. No wonder I am cynical :-)