Her name was Margaret, not that anyone ever called her that. No, she was like that old song "Mary." There's a line in it where Cohan wrote that "society" and "propriety" would have you call her "Marie." But, no, she was always just "Mary." Well, that was my Aunt Marny; Margaret just didn't suit her, and Marny did.
From the earliest times I can remember, she and Uncle George lived, on Rumstick Road, in Barrington, Rhode Island. I loved visiting her! Her place was like a living museum. A big old Colonial house nestled amongst beautiful gardens, which she tended herself.
Out back was the root cellar, an oak tree with a swing, the old barn and, best of all, the Chicken Coop. Now, it wasn't a place for chickens. Coop was just its name. It was her little guesthouse. Like the main house, it dated back a long, long time. I positively adored staying in it. The Coop was like an over-sized playhouse. You can imagine the appeal of something like that to a little kid.
When we lived in Arlington, back before my parents were divorced, we'd often go to her house for Thanksgiving or some other holiday. Such fun was the food, the company and the games. We stayed until well after dark and then drove home. I was usually asleep by the time we were out the gravel driveway.
After we moved to Florida, but I was still in high school and college, Dad and I would drive up to the Island every summer. Our last stop was always at Marny's. Often, we'd arrive quite late. So, we'd just walk down to the Coop and go in. Marny, ever the perfect hostess, left the door unlocked and a tin of homemade cookies on the table of the little sitting room with a brief note of welcome. We'd have a quick bite, and then each pick a room.
Next morning, it was up to the main house for a big breakfast. And faithful Rex, oh, he loved sniffing and smelling the flowers and plants that seemed to perpetually bloom in her gardens. No matter what the time of year, Marny always seemed to have something growing and flowering in her gardens. A photographer even used her house for some Hallmark cards once!
Then, at close of summer, we'd stop and stay the night with her on our way back. Those were the visits I loved most, because we got to spend most of the day with her. She'd take Rex and me all around the grounds, showing off her latest plantings. Oh, and we'd go out to the barn, where her studio was. Marny was quite the artist, and always happy to show off her works. She did watercolors, pastels, oil paintings, sketches - you name it!
When Grandfather and Grandmother got too old to live on their own, Marny found them a nice home near her place. Nowadays, we call them an Assisted Living Facility, as if Rest Home is somehow not PC. Each and every day, she faithfully visited them. And, it was her sad duty to call Dad when Grandmother passed.
Oh, how well I remember that terrible day, the phone call. I was doing my homework, when she called. From what I could glean, from Dad's side of the conversation, it soon became clear what they were talking about. Being a teenage boy, I had no idea what was the proper thing to do. So, I quietly slipped out of the room, to give Dad a little privacy.
Once in my room, I wept. In my short life, I'd never lost anyone close to me. It was quite the blow.
When I returned to the living room, Dad was out on the porch, looking off into the sky. No matter how stoic he might be, he was still his mother's son, and no son, no matter his age, is ever prepared to lose the woman who bore him. He tried to speak, but emotions had cut off his voice. So, I told him I knew - from across the room. I simply didn't know what to do, what sort of, if any, comfort I could give. It was an awkward time.
A few months later, it was my turn to take a call from Marny. But me, being a world-class nerd, I just thought it was a social call. So I chatted and carried on and told her all about school. Marny, ever the patient one, put up with my ramblings, until I finally asked her what was new. It was then she told me Grandfather had joined Grandmother.
Her voice was calm and subdued, yet tinged with a deep sadness.
We talked a while longer, and then said good-bye. As I dialed the number to call Dad (he was visiting a friend that day), my emotions welled up and overcame me. I was weeping as he answered. I finally managed to choke out, "Marny just called. Grandfather is gone!"
And with that, he wept. When he got home, we embraced. It may have been for the first time in my life, I really can't recall. For one moment, we comforted each other. I know it is PC for men to be in touch with their feelings, but an act of tenderness between father and son is still frowned upon, no matter what anyone says. So, this was a very private moment for us, and one that burns bright in my memory.
The next summer, the family gathered to sprinkle their ashes in the Vineyard Sound. As we sat in the small boat, I found myself sitting next to Marny. At the service, she and a few of us spoke. Dad did not. He was so overcome with emotion, if he'd tried to speak, he would have broken down. As it was, I did, and I did! Marny was there to comfort me.
A few years later, Uncle George passed away. While saddened, I did not weep. George had not exactly been a very, shall I say, involved, uncle. We had talked a bit over the years, but that was all. My main concern was Marny. She and he had been together a long time. How would she handle it? Would she follow him as Grandfather had followed Grandmother?
Boy, was I wrong!
Marny experienced a Renaissance. George had always been a homebody, uninterested in travel or activity, and Marny had placated him. Once on her own, oh baby, did she take off! A safari in Africa, journeying across the Australian Outback, cruising down the Nile, sightseeing in India and visiting the fjords of Norway - twice! First in winter, then she came back to see them in spring. And, of course, there were her garden and art. Those remained her greatest passions.
Then came Dad's passing. Marny was ever the rock. She stood with the rest of us and sprinkled his ashes into the Sound, to rest with his parents.
When I married Jo Ann, Marny flew down for the ceremony. Her wedding gift was the one I cherished most: a cake-serving dish that had been a wedding present to Grandmother and Grandfather. Our first Christmas, she sent the single most beautiful ornament I have ever seen: a clear-glass tear-drop that, like the dish, had once belonged to my grandparents. Each year, it's the first one on the tree and the last one off. I cradle it in my hand and remember Christmases back in Arlington, the family gathered together in love.
When Jo and I got our first house, she sent a housewarming gift: a silver cake platter, again, an old wedding present of Grandmother and Grandfather's. Every birthday, every Christmas, Marny sent a short hand-written note from her, usually with one of her watercolors adorning the front.
Time rolled on, and took its toll on her and her house. The Chicken Coop had to come down, too much rot and termites to be saved. What a pity. Marny too had to slow down. Her globetrotting days were over. Finally came the time when she had to move into a nursing home. I wondered: how would she adjust after so many years in her beloved house?
She didn't miss a beat!
No sooner had she moved in then she was holding art classes for the other tenants. She went to the theatre, she went shopping, she befriended the staff and did arts and crafts like there was no tomorrow.
Jo and I visited her a couple times, and brought our young daughter Alexa on our last visit. I felt such sadness to see Marny stooped over and in a wheelchair. Not just for her, but for Alexa. Oh, if only she could have known Marny when she was an active senior!
I kept writing to her, and she, ever faithful, wrote back. Until came the time when her mind began to slip away. After that, I lost heart. Her son Jere and his wife Jeanne would try to read the letters and remind her who I was, but it was no use. Marny wasn't there anymore.
And then that call.
I flew up to Barrington for the service. My brothers Greg and Steve were there. They and I and Jere were her pallbearers, and hers was such a small and light coffin. It was a lovely fall day; the leaves crunched under our feet.
I couldn't help but think: "Marny would have loved this. She'd be out in her studio painting a landscape."
Later, at the church, each of us stood to do a reading. I just kept saying to myself: "Think of the stateroom scene from 'A Night at the Opera.' It's the only way you're getting through this." It worked, well almost.
Later, as we chatted with the people who'd attended, I was struck by what a diverse group they were: her students from the Home, all of her old neighbors on Rumstick Road, the bus driver from the Home, a young woman who, as a little girl, lived down the street from Marny and used to come over for tea and cookies. That all these people would make the effort to come to her service said a lot for how much she'd touched their lives!
Before leaving, Jere took us out to the barn and said we could have any of Marny's art we wanted. Greg picked one, and as he held it up, I noticed that it had half of another picture on the back. We looked at it, and realized that Marny had done a painting, not liked it, and cut the canvas in half to use for two other pictures.
I told Greg, "You have to take this one!"
His brow wrinkled. "Why?"
"Don't you see? Years from now, on your deathbed, you can call all your kids to your side and show them the picture. With your dying breath you can say, 'This is half of the map to the family treasure. To find it, you must locate the other half. It's hidden in... ahhh...' They'll rupture themselves searching for the other half!"
Everyone laughed. We needed a moment of levity.
As far as I was concerned, never was there a greater gift. I picked out several pieces. One hangs in my living room even now, and I would not sell it for a mine of gold. I see it, and I'm carried back, back to Thanksgivings past, back to summers past and back to the sweet sounds of her soft voice. She had the most delicate laugh, almost like the coo of a dove. In all the years I knew her, I never once heard her raise her voice, to speak with anger, or to insult or denigrate anyone.
Sometimes, I look out my window and see the fluffy white clouds drifting by. Then I look at the clouds in her painting. It's funny, but I could almost swear they were done by the same hand.
Click here for more by AJ Robinson.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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