My daughter successfully defended her dissertation this week and completed her PhD. It was a proud moment for my wife and me, but it also made me think of Mary Davis. She had a lot to do with us making our move to Florida fourteen years ago and helped to start our lives down here into motion. Miss Mary, as we called her, met my wife nearly two decades ago when she was looking for an attorney. I’m not sure how she found my wife in her small family practice in Montclair, New Jersey, but it was a fortuitous connection for Miss Mary and for us.
Miss Mary was an eighty-three year old African-American woman who lived in a small apartment on the Montclair-East Orange border. She needed an estate attorney to assist with her one hundred-and-three-year-old mother who was dying of cancer. My wife got to know Miss Mary through this process and would come home and tell me what a delightful person she was. Sadly, Miss Mary was diagnosed with cancer herself almost immediately after her mother’s passing. She told my wife, “I took care of that old witch for thirty years, and as soon as she was gone, I got the cancer myself.”
As an only child of two only child parents, Miss Mary had no family. She grew up in Red Bank, New Jersey around the same time as Count Basie. My wife started inviting her to our kid’s concerts and performances. She always would make these amazing fruit salads in a carved watermelon rind that looked like a basket. She became an honorary grandparent to our children. Everybody she met loved her. Each week, she would take a bus downtown to do her errands, including a stop at the bank followed by a visit to the funeral home. She had planned out her own funeral after getting to know them through her mother’s services. She would stop in each week and chat with the workers while she paid another installment.
As a college professor, I had a relatively light schedule, so I would often pick up Miss Mary and take her to doctor appointments. I would also sit with her during some of her hospital stays. Here is where I really got to know what a fascinating woman she was. Miss Mary was like a walking and talking version of black history. Her home town had many of the first black-owned businesses in the state. She told me of a trip to the Apollo Theatre where she saw a young Ella Fitzgerald perform for the first time. She was just getting warmed up.
She moved to California to become a domestic worker in Hollywood. Miss Mary worked for several years as Lana Turner’s maid. She spent a week on a train taking Benny Goodman’s baby across country while he and his wife flew. In one story, she was visiting Eddie “Rochester” Anderson with a friend on a day off. He was having a barbecue and was serving lobster. She told me that he was chasing her with one of them and she was so frightened that she jumped into his pool. Joan Crawford took her to lunch at the Brown Derby. Van Johnson gave her a stuffed rabbit made of ermine as a gift along with a signed photo claiming to be her biggest fan.
This was only the beginning. She then went to work for the phone company which was still called Bell Telephone at the time. She was a pioneer who trained other workers and spent twenty years traveling around the world. She had developed a taste for all things Japanese and her apartment was furnished and decorated in that style. Miss Mary was also politically savvy. We both supported Al Gore over George W. Bush and she may have hated the republicans even more than I.
One day, my wife and I drove to the hospital to pick up Miss Mary after some tests. My wife dropped me by the outpatient entrance and I went in to wheel Miss Mary out. Before we made it to the door, she grabbed my arm as we both noticed an elderly woman who was trying to get the concierge to summon the bus from her senior complex. It wasn’t going well. Miss Mary turned to me, but I was way ahead of her. I told the woman that we were heading in her direction and would be happy to take her.
My wife was dumbstruck when I came out pushing not one, but two wheelchairs. “I sent you in for one and you came out with two?” she asked. Miss Mary told her that I had her permission and that was all my wife needed to hear.
Eventually Miss Mary reached a point where she needed regular help and her doctors said that it was time for Hospice. My wife and I discussed it with our children and told them that we would be moving Miss Mary to our home so she would not be alone. I called Miss Mary from work to tell her that I was coming over to determine what type of bed we needed to order, but she did not answer. Worried, I called my wife and we met at Miss Mary’s on the way home from work. Miss Mary had either fallen and passed or passed and fallen.
Since she had it all prearranged, her services were quick and efficient. For some reason, she left specific instructions that only a very few people were to attend. At the cemetery, it was basically my family and a few people from the funeral home. The next task was to deal with her apartment and belongings. My wife was Miss Mary’s executor. She left a small amount of stock to each of our kids. When we started to clean out the apartment, we learned so much more about this fascinating woman.
First of all, Miss Mary was a shoe nut. She had dozens of pairs under the bed and stacked in closets, many never having been worn. She seemed to have every greeting card and piece of correspondence that she ever had received. Miss Mary loved to hide money. $3, $5, $8, were stuffed in shoes, drawers, and envelopes. We had to meticulously go through every scrap. This turned out to be worth the effort.
We found the most amazing artifacts. There were dozens of awards, citations, and materials from the early days of the growth of Ma Bell. There were amazing cards and programs from Birdland, the famous jazz club in New York City. We found autographs of Count Basie and other jazz greats, and a fight poster signed by Sugar Ray Robinson. There was also some very interesting political material. We were impressed to find that Miss Mary was actually a delegate for the 1960 presidential election. What really blew us away was that the old faker was a delegate for Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge and not for JFK.
Here’s the crazy part. There were cards and photos from what seemed to be scores of children. “Thank you for everything, Miss Mary.” “We love you, Miss Mary.” Apparently, she either took care of or raised half of the children in Southern California at one time or another, and they all kept in touch.
She touched my children as well. We had to scramble to clean out Miss Mary’s apartment to avoid paying another month’s rent. We had used most of our December vacation to do it. We used some of the cash we found to go to Florida as a family during the kid’s spring break. Just before we left, I heard that they were opening a new campus for my University in South Florida. We checked out the area and I soon looked into a transfer. We moved a year later to a state where college was actually affordable compared to New Jersey. My oldest daughter got nearly a full scholarship to the University of Central Florida. She was able to get a free Master’s degree along with a teaching fellowship. She was then able to get into a fully funded PhD program at North Carolina State. She now has her doctorate and begins a full-time tenure track professorship today.
My other kids have thrived as well, and when they have successes, I often think of Miss Mary. It turns out that a woman who never married or had children of her own sowed more seeds than most. I hope that my wife and I can leave a similar legacy of love and achievement. I wish for the same for my children.
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