From Michael Schwartz‘s Facebook page. Published here with his permission. It is well worth being able to publish it.
This story is relevant to nothing, but a detail about its memory occurred to me recently so I thought I would share. I told my wife Laura about it and even shed a tear thinking about it.
In the 80s when I was in 4th to 6th grade, my mom was a nurse in a nursing home that was walking distance from my elementary school. The walk should have taken 20 minutes, but I was talented enough to stretch it out to over an hour.
My job at the nursing home was to watch cartoons and volunteer with the patients. The home was not a retirement facility. Its residents were completely broke, had no support, usually elderly, and were fairly sick. It was the end of a long, hard road for most of them. The staff made it as nice as they could, but this was a poor group of people in a poor north Florida town.
The first time I met Mary, I was confused about the patients, and their advanced condition made me shy. Before, all the adults I knew could do anything and knew everything. The idea that adults needed help with simple daily tasks like eating and walking was unusual to me.
Mary was in her 70s, barely 5 feet tall, her freckled face was weathered and round, and she couldn’t talk. Her eyes were squinted almost shut, she had a hard time breathing so her inhales and exhales were kind of loud and forced through her little, scrunched up nose. Her walk was a slow shuffle and I was never sure if she was just walking to walk or was actually headed somewhere intentionally.
At our introduction, one of the nurses had to tell me that Mary was trying to kiss me. So I leaned in and Mary gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek and hugged me. Her hands were dry and rough and her hugs were gentle and warm. From then on, every time I saw Mary, I got a hug and a kiss.
After He-Man was over, my mom would usually make me go talk to the nursing home’s Activity Director, who would ask me what I wanted to do. They sometimes had arts and crafts or bingo going on for the patients, which was really boring. I would usually tell her I just wanted to go visit people. That usually meant me saying hello to a couple folks on my way to find Mary for hugs and a kiss on the cheek.
Most often Mary was in her room watching Wheel of Fortune so I would sit there and watch TV with her. I got hugs and a kiss when I arrived, I got hugs and a kiss when I left, and sometimes I would get a hug and a kiss during the commercials. Mary didn’t say anything and she kind of had a permanent smile, but it looked like a tired smile that was permanently stuck from decades of squinting because she was under the sun all day.
The thing that occurred to me recently was Mary’s age. She was probably in her mid-70s in 1985 which means that she was born in the early 1900s. We lived in Panama City in north Florida, just south of Alabama. Due to her age and our location and because Mary was black, Mary’s parents were probably slaves. Mary’s grandparents were definitely slaves.
At the time, I didn’t think of Mary as black and until a few weeks ago, it did not occur to me that Mary’s ancestors were owned. Slavery sounds so abstract and it feels so distant, but Mary’s family members were owned by other people and Mary, who treated me like a treasure, was made to feel subhuman throughout most of her life due to the Jim Crow laws across the south.
None of that stopped Mary from spoiling me with love.
We moved to Florida in 1981 when I was five. Just a few years earlier, it was not uncommon to have KKK parades in the middle of downtown (though I never saw anything like that except in pictures). Just a decade prior to us arriving, blacks couldn’t eat in the same restaurants or drink from the same water fountains. In the 80s, it was still common to hear “nigger” said by friends and adults and to hear “nigger” jokes as casually as knock-knock jokes. (I was so uncomfortable hearing that word that I lost friendships over it as a kid and could barely write it in this story, but I am not letting you off the hook by writing “N word”.)
In my experience, black kids and white kids didn’t play together. Whites and blacks weren’t typically neighbors. The only exception was sports where nobody cared what you looked like; only if you played hard and well. However, once we were off the field, white kids and black kids went to their separate corners and pretended not to know each other.
Mary’s weathered face and sandpaper hands made it clear she had a tough life. My bet is that she grew up poor and lived close by in Florida. I am sure her life was, on occasion, made much tougher by people who shared my complexion. I do not know much about Mary, but I feel safe assuming that if you judge Mary’s life experiences by modern standards, she had a really difficult, tough life. That didn’t stop Mary from hugging and kissing me relentlessly. The negativity Mary experienced and the struggle she endured didn’t stop her from making a little boy, who hated being at a nursing home after school, feel loved and cared about, no matter what color he was.
Every little boy should get to experience love from a sweet, little, old lady like Mary. It takes a lot of character and love to treat others with the love and respect that you only rarely received. I am glad I got to thinking about Mary and that the context of her life experiences finally occurred to me 35 years later.
It’s late. I’m off to bed. I hope you enjoyed. Thanks for taking a minute to read about my friend Mary. Good night.