When Mary White first came into Five Star Convenience Store in Keene -- probably the evening of the day Mark and I bought the place back in February of 1993 -- her appearance brought to mind a cruel description -- death warmed over. I took her to be a bag lady; indeed, there were -- as there was always to be -- four or five handled bags dangling from each of her forearms. She looked to be somewhere around seventy. Her clothes were often threadbare. Her face was pasty and puffy and pale. Her thin hair was woefully arranged; it was blonde from some cheap low-shelved brand of blondness. Her blue eyes were too pale to be striking. She was pitifully skinny; her thin skin sagged from one bone to the next. She seemed almost too frail to be standing, let alone ambulatory. She was festooned with heavily-mascara-ed false eyelashes and cursorily-applied lipstick. At times one of those false eyelashes would have become half unglued and, insect-like, stand half-straight out, leaving one wondering how she could not have noticed.
As I got to know her I came to love Mary White. Cheerfulness and friendliness and goodwill oozed from every pore of her being.
She came to love me. She came to love Mark. She loved every single one of our "wonderfully kind" employees. Anytime I mentioned a friend who lived away, Mary never forgot the names and characteristics of those friends, and would occasionally ask after "the adorable Abby" or "that rascally Rodney" or "the brilliant Liz".
I suppose that Mary White stopped in at Five Star every single day of the six years we owned the store, stopping in usually on her way home from her custodial job at the hospital. She'd generally buy, among whatever else, a "cute" six-pack of Budweiser and a pack or two of "delightful" or "charming" Cambridge cigarettes for her boyfriend Bob. (I'm aiming to make it clear that Mary believed that everyone and everything deserved at least one complimentary adjective.)
Mary herself didn't smoke anything or drink alcohol. Bob, who did, was a friendly guy who seemed perfectly capable of working but for a good long time did not. He might, a couple hours after Mary's daily appearance, show up for a second 6-pack and some scratch tickets.
Mary White and Bob LeFebvre
One evening I noticed a man of about fifty do a double-take of Mary as she was leaving the store.
"Did she used to be a school teacher?" he asked me, "I'd swear she was my teacher back in second grade."
Piece by piece I learned various facets of Mary's background -- not from Mary, who was eminently self-effacing, but from this or that customer who would small-talk what he or she knew about Mary.
She had been a school teacher. And she'd been involved in local theater. She once mentioned that one of her "fellow thespians" had been John Ciardi, who went on to literary fame for his translations of Dante; another was a young Maureen Stapleton.
At some point the theater group decided that they would mount a production of "Lady Godiva". To advertise it, a young Mary White, donned in a body stocking, mounted a white horse and rode the length of Main Street; her blonde wig, it was said, was long enough that it nearly dragged on the pavement. I loved this image of Mary -- she loved theatricality, and Keene's Main Street is broad and handsome. It ends at a nice circular park smack dab at the town's center. Beyond this park, as you approach from the south, sets a white Congregational church whose white steeple soars high above the park's maples. The scene makes downtown Keene pretty enough to be used as the setting of any movie, such as "Peyton Place", that calls for a typical-looking New England town. (And it amuses me that, despite the park's being circular, the landmark is invariably referred to by natives as The Square, which often confused visitors asking for directions.)
I like to imagine how happy Mary White must have been on that ride -- smiling, waving to bystanders, being an entertaining spectacle in what all too often must have seemed (and, indeed, is)a too staid, backwards, off-the-main-route town.
For this merry display Mary White was deemed by the city fathers to be unfit to teach youngsters; she was fired from her job.
About this time her mother went into the hospital for an operation. There was no insurance; neither Mary nor her mother had money to pay the hospital bill.
Mary asked if she could work as a custodian at the hospital to pay them off. This she did, and she proved to be such a good worker that when the bill was paid she was asked to stay on as a regular employee.
And so there she labored for many years, walking to and from her home, a mile and a half each way, and always with the several bags on each arm, and in all weathers, and always wearing those white tennis shoes that cost $2.99 at Walgreen's or $1.99 at one of the big box discount stores.
Often she sort of jogged back and forth between home and hospital, even in the snow. Various people told me that they'd stopped at one time or another to offer her a ride but she always declined, saying she enjoyed the exercise. I wondered if sometimes in the cold months the jogging part wasn't part of trying to keep warm.
Knowing that I was devoted to reading, a typical conversational opener from Mary to me might be, "Today one of our lovely patients and I were comparing the London of Thackeray with that of Dickens." She quoted lines from poems she liked. She spoke of "marvelous" and "fabulous" and "fantastic" shows she was "lucky enough" to have gotten tickets for at Keene's old and beautifully refurbished Colonial Theater.
I loved the incongruity -- the broad culture enclosed within the carapace of one who had initially struck me as being a bag lady.
Another time she might simply comment on the quotidian: "I see that the good Mayor Blastos has finally put a crew of strapping men on Washington Street to fill those irksome potholes!"
Mary's gestures and facial expressions and speech were always theatrical. Her oft-stated and oft-displayed devotion to the stage only made me fonder of her even if I didn't care that much about acting and theater myself, I loved Mary's theatrics; and, of course, I loved her colorful use of our language.
It was said that she was especially good and kind to patients at the hospital. One of those happened to be a woman named Julie Older. On the day Julia was dismissed from the hospital she inscribed a copy of her latest book of poems, Higher Latitudes, to Mary.
That evening Mary offered it to me to read. I did so and wrote Mary a note of thanks and included some commentary on several of the poems and images in them which I'd especially liked.
Mary promptly sent my note on to Julia. Julia in turn wrote me a note of appreciation for my remarks.
Eventually I met Julia when she did a reading in Keene; we took to one another right away, feeling kindred for being, if nothing else, fellow members of The Mary White Fan Club; Julia and I have carried on a correspondence ever since. Julia's letters, always beautifully handwritten, are treasures -- the sort of items I'd gather and secure with a pretty ribbon if I were the sort to gather things and put them in pretty ribbon, rather than being the more mundane and anal sort who keeps them in a manila folder labeled "Older, Julia".
Eventually Mary reached an age where she could collect a pension due her from the years she spent in the school system. She signed it over to Bob, who was seven or eight years younger than she. When, too, she'd been at the hospital long enough to have earned a pension from there, she signed that one over to Bob as well.
Once a young man who'd grown up in town but who'd spent most of his still-young life in prison, escaped from the police in Concord as he was being transported to court. He immediately became a subject of every conversation in Keene. His reputation was, according to every person who spoke of him to me, that of a particularly mean person; it seemed like the entire town of Keene was on edge because it was assumed the escapee would make his way back to the area he'd grown up in. While countless customers remarked as to what a fearsomely mean person he was, Mark said to me that he would bet that Mary would not say an unkind thing about him. Sure enough, that evening Mary, looking at the guy's picture on the front page of the local newspaper remarked that in his childhood he could not have been "cuter or sweeter."
I came to think of Mary White as the most saintly person I'd ever known.
Mark's and my last day in Keene, May 14, 1999, happened to be Mary's birthday. We wanted to take Mary and Bob out for lunch but Mary, due to "digestive problems," begged off, but did agree to meet us in "The Square". From there we walked down Main Street to Brewbaker's Cafe. Sitting at one of the sidewalk tables in the wonderfully warm sun we had cappuccinos and pastries. It had so happened that from The Square to the cafe we had ran into four or five people Mark and I knew, and we needed to stop and chat with each of them.
Soon thereafter a note of thanks from Mary arrived at our new home on Cape Cod. It was on to-die-for stationery illustrated with a particularly beautiful picture of The Blessed Virgin ... something Mary'd probably purchased at some fundraiser at St. Bernard's.
"The flowers on the square are still exquisite," she wrote, "and every time we walk through it we are reminded of my birthday when we four walked through it, and you two were like Rock Stars with fans following you, expressing their love and avid appreciation!"
Over the years notes and cards arrived regularly from Mary; we returned our own notes and cards, and I was careful each spring to remember to send a special birthday letter to Mary. I strained, as evidenced in the opening of my 2004 offering, to make these letters as beautiful as Mary herself: "My knack for typing out a letter has, like the tulips and the forsythia, lain dormant all winter, but the warm weather and our warm birthday thoughts of you have brought about a timely resuscitation!"
At a party with Merry Mary
Mary's note in response to my birthday letter in 2006 asked us to pray for Bob: spots had been discovered on his lungs.
Then there was no Halloween card.
And then there was no card at Thanksgiving.
At Christmas-time I wrote in my card to Julia:
I've become worried about Mary ... as I think I mentioned earlier, not a holiday has gone by without cheery words from her, until this past Halloween and Thanksgiving. I suspect she's excellent at spreading good cheer but probably not one to share travails. This may be a common trait in saints; I don't know. I hesitate to telephone her, suspecting she likes privacy in some matters; I cannot remember Bob's daughter's name even though she worked for us in the store; and so I am about to phone Father LaMathe at St. Bernard's to see if he knows that Mary and Bob are okay.
On Christmas day the dog and I were just about to leave to go to Mark's parents in Falmouth when Julia Older telephoned. "I'm so sorry to let you know -- Mary is no longer with us."
The stage abruptly dims to dark. From left and right the heavy velvet curtains are yanked toward center stage. In my mind the curtains are a rich burgundy, and have -- perhaps a foot above the lower hems -- a rich decorative stripe of yellow-gold running across them. The lower halves of the yanked curtains linger slightly on their path to the center; there is a bit of back and forth sway to them -- it's like the hectic sway of the skirt of a woman who is doing the tango -- and finally the curtain settles down. "Go ahead and cry, George. I'll cry with you," Julia says.
Mary had died back on June 14, 2006. She was 81. Bob lasted nearly eight months without her; he died, at 74, on Feb. 5th, 2007.
I like to say, and it is true, that I am rich with friends.