When I was in grade school, we’d make paper cones in art class, make a loop handle and tuck spring flowers inside to give to someone special on May Day.
My mom always had my sister and I take one next door to give to Mary Distel. Mary had a garden with a white picket fence around it. The garden was chocked full of flowers so beautiful it looked as though a Life magazine photo had come alive. She had tulips in every color imaginable, some that looked like an artist had painted them. Then there was the narcissus in creams, peaches and soft yellows that smelled so sweet. Daffodils, some double and ruffled, marched along the fence like a ring of little suns. There was phlox and ivy edging the path that led to her back door. We’d knock and peer through the door into a little mud room. Three steps up from the mud room was the kitchen, and there was Mary. She’d open the door and we’d yell “Happy May Day!” Inside, she’d ooh and aaaah over our beleaguered tulips and daffodils (a little road worn from the six block walk home from school) as though they were the most precious things in the world.
And that’s pretty much how Mary treated us our whole lives. Mary and her husband, Frank, had a poultry farm where my dad worked when he was in high school. When my mom and dad moved us from Marion to Tiffin, we rented the charcoal grey bungalow on Nelson Street that Mary and Frank owned. If this older childless couple were ever unsettled by the presence of two rambunctious (if adorable) little girls next door, they never let on. Frank was a cabinetmaker by trade. He made us boxes for our crayons and fished toys out of the bathroom drain when we tried to see if they’d float. Mary collected antiques. She taught us songs and tucked us into her windowseat on rainy days, where we’d sit warm and dry between windowpane and velvet drapery, eating homemade oatmeal cookies.
Mary always had a friendly old dog in her back yard. She would purposely pick the ugliest dog at the pound, bring it home and name it after a flower. Her dad, Charlie Berger, lived with her and Frank as did Mary’s mom. Mary’s mom was paralyzed from a stroke and stayed in a bedroom right off the kitchen. Mary would talk to her mom while she ironed or cooked and sometimes we’d go in to say hi, too, but she never moved. The room always smelled like her bedsheets, which Mary’d hung outside to dry. Charlie Berger spent his days whistling through the neighborhood, leaning on his cane. When mom gave us money for ice cream, she’d tell us to see if Charlie wanted some. He never did, but always gave us a nickel to “get a vanilla cone for Mary Ellen.” At election time, he’d sneak over to our house and offer to pay my mom and dad two dollars to vote Republican and not tell Mary.
Most of our childhood days had Mary in them somewhere, even after she and Frank moved. A few years later, Mom and dad built our house out in the country, but we’d still see Mary and Frank even if it wasn’t as often. After awhile, Frank died. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. Mary eventually moved back in town to a smaller house. When I was in junior high, she gave me a book about Tom Dooley. Few books I've read since have affected so profoundly the way I looked at the world and my role in it.
Mary wasn’t a beautiful woman on the outside, but she was one of the most beautiful women I've ever known. She never had children of her own, but somehow became sort of a second mother to my sister and me. Well into her 70’s. she was still taking “old ladies” out to Ponderosa for lunch on Sundays and to their doctors appointments in Toledo. Sje always had a zest for life and never ever seemed to grow old.
Home from college one weekend, I went to San Mar Pharmacy to pick up a prescription for dad. The side door to the store opened and in came Mary. She saw me and her face lit up. In her excitement, Mary tripped coming down the steps and landed with a loud thud. She got up, dusted herself off and – oblivious to the stares of everyone in the store – laughed and declared loudly “Well! That would jar your mothers’ pickles!” At that moment, I remembered all over again why Mary was always my hero.
At that moment, I was the little girl with frizzy blond hair and scabs on my knees, and Mary was telling me I was beautiful.
When I graduated high school, she painted me a beautiful picture of a lynx on a snowy hilltop. When I went away to college, she gave me her mother’s dowry trunk. When I got married, she brought me a crystal sugar and creamer set. Sadly, I got busy with life after that and didn’t visit Mary as often as I should have. I’d write her a letter every once in awhile and send her a card at Christmas and on her birthday. When she died, I was married with two little kids of my own living on the other side of the state. I’m ashamed to say I missed her funeral.
No one celebrates May Day much anymore, but I will always think of Mary on May Day as long as I live. And I will always regret how little time I made for her in the last years of her life. Knowing her, she’s in heaven and forgiven me, turning her attention instead to telling hilarious stories to the angels.
I love you, Mary – Happy May Day.
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