Thursday, April 25, 2013

RIP Mary Elizabeth Brock - Apr. 25, 1915 - May 27, 2009

Mary (in white) and some of the Lobster Pot lunch crew parade-watching.
Late afternoon, 1979. Walking on Commercial Street in Provincetown. Almost done with winter. I passed the Mayflower Restaurant and saw my buddy Rod sitting in a window-booth. He beckoned me in and introduced me to the woman sitting across the table from him. I’d seen this woman around town since I’d arrived there seven years earlier but didn’t know her. She was Mary Brock, Rod said. A native, born right up the street.  “Sit down,” she said, scooting over. “My neck’s gettin’ sore whipping back and forth ‘cause so many cute guys are walking by.”  She was sixty-five. I didn’t know it but I’d just met a woman who’d become as great a friend as anyone could wish for. Mary was, as they say, full of piss and vinegar.

Rod and Mary

We took to one another right away, thought of ourselves as faux-cousins even, for Mary’s mother was a Fitzgerald, born on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland just down the road from where my father was born. I like stretching the truth, so sometimes I told people that Mary and I were cousins. And really there was no telling how much of a stretch it was -- maybe we were -- but surely  we weren’t. The other half of Mary, her father’s half, was Portuguese. “That’s the Port-a-gee in me,” she’d say, or, “That’s the Irish in me.”

In Mary's eyes I could almost do no wrong. She stood up for me even when I couldn’t be bothered to stand up for myself. It's a nice feeling to know that there's someone out there who will always have your back

I borrowed many wisdoms from Mary and thought of them as my own.

In summers we ate peach melbas at Cafe Blase. In winters we watched the Celtics. Her favorite Celtics were Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell, but she did say once, "Isn't that Danny Ainge cunning?!" I'd never before heard anyone use that term to indicate cuteness.

When some friends and I – we’d worked at the Lobster Pot together and with Mary, who was hostess/cashier there – when we bought a restaurant in Vermont one of us thought to name the restaurant Mary B’s. She was thrilled when she flew up from Florida for the opening and saw her name on the sixteen-foot-long sign on our building. Eventually we got busy enough to have a full-time hostess, and that couldn’t be anyone but the restaurant’s namesake.

Meanwhile, one of the loyal customers keeping us busy was a two-star General who headed up the Vermont Air Guard. He was about six-five, a big handsome guy with a silvered crew-cut and admirable posture. He liked to wear his uniform with the usual splash of colorful medals on his chest. He and his girlfriend liked a certain table in a corner. Once Mary took on the hostess duties, had taken charge of what she called “the floor,” she was bound to eventually encounter The General at the door. When it happened he looked down at Mary and said, “We like to sit over there.” Mary, leaning her head way back to look up at him, said, “My job here is to seat people and you sit where I tell you to.” He was briefly taken aback but then he rather admired this sassy little old lady who’d dared speak to him in a manner he was not accustomed to, and he grew to love her.

Years after we’d sold that restaurant we took Mary along when we were visiting friends in Burlington. (Since she'd been in Vermont they'd passed a law that there was no smoking in restaurants; Mary was appalled.) Ahead on Church Street I saw The General coming toward us. I saw him recognize Mary B. Then I saw him running toward us to give her a hug.

12 Railroad Avenue; Essex Junction, Vermont

One time Mary crocheted me an afghan. “I’ll be over to get it,” I said, but I didn’t get over fast enough to please her.  “When are you gonna come and get your afghan?” she asked scoldingly. “Soon,” I said. I was working two jobs in those days, for crying out loud, plus another guy and I were building a house in our spare time. Mary lived at 100 Bradford Street, on the second floor. She had a big picture window that looked out on the street, flanked by smaller sash windows. One evening she saw me coming up Bradford on my bike. “Here’s your afghan,” she yelled, hanging out the window. I looked up and the brightly colored afghan was slowly wafting down, floating back and forth and in a spiral pattern.


Whenever Mary entered the bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Fernandina Beach,
Florida, the pianist, Chris, automatically segued into "Old Cape Cod"
Mary was a master of the snappy comeback. You didn't want to get into a spat with her because there was no way you were going to get the last word in. Even when she was well into her nineties I heard her and her son Bobby giving each other shit, sassin' back-n-forth, and neither one was going to let the other have the last word. Bobby was holding his own for about twenty rounds. He was doing great. He was almost as good as she was, but in the end he wasn't the one who got the last word in.


Mark and Mary in New Hampshire.
I saw Mary do things and I'd wonder how the hell she could get away with them. Ten or twelve times I watched as various young couples with young babies come into Mary B’s. Invariably the baby would start crying.  Mary would simply go to the table, tell the parents she’d take the baby so that they could enjoy their meal. They never challenged her! They (rightly) trusted her. She'd hold the baby in her arms, poke it in the chest and say, “No, we don’t do that in here ... we don't cry when we're in a restaurant!” And I swear ... no exaggeration here ... the baby would stop crying. While the parents had a peaceful dinner, Mary continued greeting and seating people, menus in one hand, the baby in the other. She'd take the baby into the kitchen to meet the staff back there, she'd wander from the dining room where you could smoke to the one where you couldn't, and you would not hear a peep from any of those babies as long as they were in her arms, as long as they were on the move. I could never figure out what this magic touch was ... something in her deep voice maybe, some baby-smart trust, I just didn't know. One time, though, I watched as one baby stared as if in astonishment at Mary's vividly red fingernails! Maybe it was nothing but the fascination of bright shiny red fingernail polish.


Mary in Bonita Springs, visiting us and Mark's parents.
Mark and I, business-wise, after the successful restaurant in Vermont, and a really successful convenience store with a large deli-lunch business in Keene, New Hampshire, ended up with a small cafe just off the Mid-Cape Highway in South Yarmouth. In the process of buying that business we were befriended by a realtor named Phyllis. She was great, showing us around, telling fabulous funny stories, inviting us to her family outings, and onto her boat for rides on Nantucket Sound, and even to see the Boston Pops. She was a bundle of energy; though she had fifteen years on me she could wear me out.

Soon after we were settled into that cafe it was time to invite Mary up from Florida where she then was living. We knew that Mary was not going to appreciate another lady of about the same age as she was having barged her way (as Mary would have put it) into our lives.  We belonged to her! Phyllis would be, to Mary, persona non grata, competition.

Mark and I dreaded the two of them meeting, fearing that somehow Mary would create sparks, but it was unavoidable: Mary hung out at the cafe from eleven to three, and Phyllis was dropping in three or four times some days (always, as I remember, with a little gift ... a vase, a flower, a picture, a yard-sale find ... something) and often would also drop over to our house in the evenings.

We decided that the easiest way to break them in to one another would be to take them to dinner on Mary's first night in town. We were barely seated at a place called The American Pub when Phyllis flipped over her placemat and began sketching on it a redesign of our cafe "for better customer flow." 

“The only thing they need is more tables,” Mary said, dismissive of Phyllis's ideas. (More tables was the last thing we wanted; we thought a small place was going to be cute and easy.)

“No!  No!  That’s not what they need!” Phyllis asserted in her gravelly voice.

To this woman she'd met barely a minute earlier, Mary hissed, “Then you don’t know a thing about the restaurant business, baby!”  With that she turned in her chair so as to have baby as much out of view as possible, rolled her eyes, shook her head sadly, and sighed.

Thankfully Phyllis was hip enough to have handled it all in great humor; the extreme-cafe-makeover subject was dropped; the remainder of our American Pub outing was peaceful.

But clearly Mary did not relish having to share us with Phyllis in the days ahead.  “She wants to be center stage,” Mary complained in the car on our way home.

On Mary's last Saturday with us on that visit we were rather busy at the cafe. In walked Phyllis, who brashly announced, for all to hear, “I’ve just come to make sure you’re getting rid of her tomorrow!”

Mary had been delivering food to the tables the two weeks of her visit and now Phyllis joined in to help.  Mary did not appreciate this. After Phyllis was gone Mary lamented, “She needs training bad if she’s gonna help in the cafe. I hope none of those customers thought that was the way the place is run all the time.”

“Phyllis is such a comedian,” I said to Mary.

“Not everybody likes a comedian!” she snapped.

Mary and me in a bar on the New York side of Lake Champlain.
Happy Birthday Sweetheart! I miss you every day.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this I feel I know her...and Phyllis for that matter! that last photo is priceless...gorgeous warmth to it...I'll wave to the stars tonight...