“Remember that no one is better than you, but that you are better than no one.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
Some days are Mary Days, and I spend a good part of the day reflecting on Mary, a woman whom I didn’t know well, but one who still intrigues me nonetheless. By the world’s standards, she wasn’t pretty and didn’t try to be. She never attempted to dab the excess oil off her Miss Piggy face. Her chocolate-colored, shoulder-length knotted mess of hair begged for a a hairbrush (a comb wouldn’t go through it) and at least a five-inch trim. You kept your distance walking behind her, because you didn’t want to get caught in an avalanche of her mountain slope of dandruff.
In middle school, where I met Mary, the kids bullied her for having a “pig’s nose” and outweighing a bulldozer. She never retaliated. Instead, she was a hidden, voiceless figure that roamed the school’s hallways like a ghost. She hid her obese form underneath solid, dark, below-the-knee tent dresses as if they were parachutes that, unlucky for her, she couldn’t dive farther under and take cover from the world. Mary did, however, wear an oversized brown-framed pair of eyeglasses. Conveniently, when kids slapped their remarks at her, she placed her index finger in the middle of the eyeglass frame, lowered her head and took shield under her eyeglasses.
Out of hundreds of mostly white, affluent kids, there was only a handful of over-sized youth in our suburban school system. I fell into that group. I had blown up like a soft decaying onion when I was around nine and had to contend with the same bullies, who switched out my first name for new names like “fat” and “fatso” and “tank.” Years later, I had heard that one of the “fat girls” in our group stole her father’s hunting gun and blew her thick chest to smithereens with it. She saw no other alternative to end the painful voices.
Anyway, it was Mary I gravitated to the most. Nonetheless, I never commiserated with her. In fact, I was relieved on the day she, or one of the other “rejects,” caught the bullies’ full venom. Mary and I survived those merciless years, only to greet each other in passing with quick salutations, our voiceless mouths on our wilted heads, dropped toward the school’s hallway floors that we trudged.
In my high school sophomore year, I fell head over heels with my first lover, a bottle of amphetamines. In fact, the illegal prescriptions not only brought me down to 98 pounds, but also leveled out my ADHD symptoms, an undiagnosed condition in the 70s that I would learn about and understand many years later.
Along with the weight loss came the tight jeans and halter tops, and I gained a fake voice and smile and indulged fully in my new fake cool girl role. Some of my best “hallelujah” moments were when I challenged everyone during gym class to jump besides me on the trampoline. A few people took the challenge, but no one could compete with my frenzied, drug-induced moves.
Anyway, I am happy to report that I did not use my new cool to graduate to a seat on the bully-ship. Except, that is one time, when about a half dozen of the cool bullies tossed down one of the thin, quiet, Frida Kahlo-eyebrowed students on the football field. Soaring on adrenaline, I darted into the crowd and pulled her fat wool knee socks down to her ankles and fled laughing. Though that incident sounds innocuous, its dark shadow crept over me for days, weeks on end, and I felt so guilty that it motivated me never to break down the already broken.
By the end of sophomore year, one day sitting in the school cafeteria eating a meager apple, my typical lunch, I spotted Mary from afar. She was hunched over in a burlap tank-like dress that appeared way too hot for early spring. I noticed, of all things, the napkin neatly place on her lap and her proper dining etiquette. She placed a tidily folded bag of her bagged lunch on the side and had laid out her sandwich and snacks in a symmetrical pattern on a hot lunch tray. Even though she positioned herself like a question mark, when she lifted her peachy toned head up, Mary chewed slowly with her mouth closed. Her expression was glazed over as she sat alone at the corner of a lunch table. I saw my old, broken self in her. I rose, and to my classmates disbelief, I left the cool clique and moved over to Mary, asking her if I could join her. At first she was reluctant, but then she happily agreed. That day started a regular lunch date for the rest of our high school years. Apart from having a lunch buddy, not much changed in Mary’s life and the bullying persisted. I, on the other hand, moved from the cool kids clique to the creative, theatrical kids’ clique.
During those Mary Lunch Days, as I came to call them in my mind, Mary talked about her beautiful, talented sisters who aced tests and won dance awards. She never spoke about herself. What would she talk about? How she spent weekends alone? How she did not go to the prom? How she likely would never date a man, or if the case was, a woman? How she would never get married and have a family? She did not need a crystal ball. She knew and accepted her fate from the start. She used her sisters as a catharsis, and it seemed her lot in life was okay, and she accepted it.
I don’t know if she had a spiritual belief, but I can understand how she did not have faith in the world that she was discarded into like a runt from the liter. Mary was not about to change her slipshod presence. Unlike me, she did not allow our peers to buy her and then program their people-pleasing buttons inside her.
Our connection derived from a deep appreciation of our differences. I did not pity her. I appreciated her bravery and resilience. I appreciated her subtle, petite voice and even tone. I appreciated how, when I was on a particular adrenalin rush, she gave her whole attention to me without trying to change me, because I mattered in Mary’s eyes and, in some uncanny way she was the first one on earth to show me how to flex my nearly destroyed faith muscle and show me that unconditional love really was possible.
After graduation, Mary went into the workforce as most of the high school classes did in those days. Perpetual bookworm, I continued my education. Distance did not separate us, and we still exchanged letters. By the time I got married and started a young family, I reconnected with Mary, who lived alone in a modest apartment, working a government job. We talked on the phone on a weekly basis. Most of the conversation centered around my young toddlers. Mary thirsted to hear about every little milestone, every little step and tooth in their lives. It felt as if she were taking notes, recording them in a future book to call her own.
Her life, on the other hand, was like one big blank that was part of the page of life. When she shared, it was obvious she was friendless and dateless, no sign of human connection anywhere. However, she was like a hummingbird, feeding on her three sisters’ good fortunes of careers, bustling households and all the things worldly beauty can own.
Once our family moved to a larger house in 2002, my life became busier, and our calls ceased, but our yearly Christmas cards did not stop. Around 2009, shortly before our household fell apart, I spotted Mary at the local supermarket. She had gained so much more weight since our high school days that that she was strapped in an electric mobility scooter, unable to carry it all. I immediately ducked. I did not want to cause her any embarrassment.
Now, looking back I think about how self-centered and assuming I had been. Why did I think I would have embarrassed her? It makes me sad to think how the world and it’s people-pleasing ways had wrapped me around it’s fickle finger of fate. Instead of putting my faith into substance, I put it into fake appearances. Why couldn’t I have just accepted her as she was? Made the stretch, widened my arms around that dang scooter, and exclaimed to her how beautiful she was in her own, unique way.
A few years after I avoided her in the supermarket, I found out Mary died in 2015 at 54 years old from what sounded like a medical condition. I regretted missing her funeral, but what I missed more was her deep sincere shamrock green eyes and how they looked at you as if you were the most precious soul on earth, because in Mary’s eyes anyone who could see through her layers was.
I spend many days in my Mary Days ruminating about the world’s inequalities. I think about the people who are bullied, like I was, like my son was, like Mary was, and how so many others are today. I think about those who, long after the fact, allow those bullies to invade their brain and live shamed, little and low, like walking silent question marks, like ghosts who will never spook anyone because they are more invisible than vapor. It’s interesting though, how vapor refers to “a gas phase at a temperature where the same substance can also exist in the liquid or solid state, below the critical temperature of the substance.”
And, yes, maybe, just maybe with a little faith, these victims can rise above and exist, despite the critical climate. And, sometimes if a friend, family member or intuitive stranger lends a helping hand to lend weight to the words of his or her belief system, a unicorn, let’s call her Mary, finds a holy ground to roam free. Sometimes sharing a lunchtime sandwich is the first brick that jump starts a path to holiness.