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Saint Mary


Brian Peters

I realize we've all lost someone at some point in our lives. Not always dead, just lost, like sand through our fingers, scattering on the beach where thousands of other grains lie. I had special people. Though some remain lost, they still flow through my veins. They are part of me and nothing can ever change that.

Mary wasn't her real name. It was the name I gave her because she occupied the subway grate in front of St. Mary's church. She was a fixture of my daily commute; a part of my landscape like the donut shop where I bought my coffee and the office tower where I cocooned myself for eight hours a day. Unless the weather was too malicious, I saw Mary every day. She survived the night's ruffians who preyed on the hopeless, nature's elements and her own loneliness to return to her spot in the human rat race day after day.

Passers-by considered Mary a splotch on the sidewalk, something to walk around like a dead animal. Wrapped in layers of Goodwill shirts and baggy, stained pants, it was difficult to guess her age but her leathered face had aged long ago. She sniffed cynically at the world through a large nose and she had the squinted, peering eyes of someone who'd spent her life outdoors, staring into the sun. Her graying unkempt hair was poorly cropped and tousled about her shoulders. Mary was an old canvas of wisdom and sagging dignity, brushed with lines of courage from years of living on the streets. Sometimes a stiff breeze caught the sour timbre of old washrags; the acrid stink of oil puddles and alleyways lacquered with cigarettes and dried excrement.

From her fetal position, Mary whimpered and cried out but we ignored her. We
walked on, didn't look back, and pretended we couldn't hear her. We were more embarrassed to be there then she was.

But it was May. Spring. Flowers opened their faces to the sky, babies were born, leaves sprouted. And as the flowers blossomed so did my heart. That day, I didn't walk on or feign deafness. I wasn't embarrassed as I stopped and knelt down in front of Mary. She looked up, her eyes rounded to platters like a small child on Christmas morning, as I deposited a series of coins in her battered margarine container. She sucked in her breath over long yellowed teeth. "Hello Mary." As I continued on my way, I heard additional tinkling as more coins were dropped into her bucket. In May, anything was possible.

Over time, I dropped more money into her bucket. I once delivered a sandwich and watched with fascination as she devoured it like a starved chipmunk. Mary would sometimes catch my gaze for more then a few seconds, the bloodshot windows telling more then she wanted. The 'hellos' extended to 'how are you?' and 'where did you spend last night?' but her answers were always the same and I didn't expect more.

From my corner office on the sixth floor, I struggled to get a handle on my feelings about the old lady and it bothered me. She fascinated me and for some inexplicable reason, she frightened me. I thought about her at the strangest times, in the middle of a budget meeting, reading management reports, sipping coffee in the lunchroom. I watched her like a child with an ant farm as her daily life unfolded. It consisted of pushing a rusty shopping cart full of dumpster treasures up and down Langston Street. Her back was bent like a tree leaning under a winter's weight of snow and her neck, arms and legs seemed twisted and frail. She would stop at a garbage can and rummage, sometimes retrieving something of interest. She would tuck in a wind-whipped strand of hair before melting back into the background. Mary was one of the invisible inhabitants of a large cosmopolitan city, a lost soul within easy reach of salvation but I soon realized it wasn't her who needed saving.

While I locked my house doors at night, battened down the windows and set the perimeter alarm, I sometimes thought about her, drunk and cold, huddled in some doorway silently shaking with insane laughter. She was as happy in her world as I was in mine.

Were her days spent any different then mine?

It was a soft summer morning when I heard her speak for the first time. I was approaching her grate with several old blankets when some self-righteous passerby asked her why she didn't get a job. A look of ice glinted in her eyes as she raised her head to face him. She had a voice like a rusty chainsaw and I could hear the whisky in her voice as she half-screeched her reply. "People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up." I was startled into uncontrollable laughter. I raged until my sides ached and she soon joined me while the jerk stared at us like we were both crazy.

When I finally composed myself, I looked at Mary and asked, "How do you know the poetry of Ogden Nash?"

She shrugged, got up and spit over her shoulders, "I am not bound to make thee happy with answers, sir." She trundled after her shopping cart.

Nash. Shakespeare. How can she know these giants of literary talent?

I guess madness is not a disease after all. It is a great wide precipice where no bottom can be seen. Sometimes you slip off the edge; sometimes you jump with great enthusiasm. There is a special kind of madness that cannot be obtained or sought after, it just happens. Some call it insanity while others prefer genius. Either is correct. I knew of a select few who possess this quality - Einstein, Fraud and now, Mary.

Perhaps it was a feeling that we had met before or shared some experience in the past like déjà vu, but I was left alone on the sidewalk shaking the feeling from my mind.

"Wait!" I called after her. I deserved answers.

She stopped and turned around. Somehow she seemed taller, more confident as her face melted into a warm smile. It was as if she had read my mind. "A lot of times the one thing everybody's so sure they know, turns out to be to be the one thing that isn't true."

I looked deep into her eyes and only found kindness and compassion. I was bewildered. For six months I knew her as a homeless waif, a despondent creature without a past or future. In the span of a few seconds, she changed into someone completely unknown. At one point a chrysalis, now a butterfly. What just happened? Was I the butt of some joke? I stammered a weak reply. "Who are you?"

"Just a sick old woman who knows a thing or two about life. The real question is, who are you."
She let the question sink in for a minute before continuing.

"For months you have stopped by my grate and gave me money and food, presents to make my modest existence worth living another day. You're the only one who has helped so much. God bless thee and put meekness in thy mind, love, charity, obedience, and true duty." She paused. "I believe it's time I give you something in return."

"It's alright," I said, waving my hands in front of me. "You don't have anything I want."

She ignored me and reached deep into her shopping cart while I stood back and stared in disbelief.
Was she just a crazy old woman or was something else going on here?

She cocked her head to one side and looked at me or through me would be a better description of her glare. "Judge ye not that ye be judged."

When she surfaced, she was holding a book. Its cover battered and the edges of the pages yellow with age.

"A lifetime ago we were the same, you and I. I lived an unremarkable life alone in a one-bedroom apartment with not much furniture but I got by. One day on the job, I was told not to return. The company went bankrupt and I was out of a job. I had no savings and soon found myself kicked out of my apartment and on the streets. No one wanted me and after a while, I didn't want anyone either."

I asked the one question that was burning on my lips. "Why didn't you try again?"

Her smile dripped down to one side. "I wasted time and now doth time waste me. "

Her speech of quotes and riddles was intriguing so I decided to play along. I nodded. "I think Shakespeare also said 'A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, we bid be quiet when we hear it cry, but were we burdened with like weight of pain, as much or more we should ourselves complain.' I can't begin to understand how you feel but if it were me -"

"Don't pity me in my life, my good man. I don't pity you in yours," she shrieked, waggling a twisted finger in my direction. "Pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything good in the world. Helen Keller."

Her swift, succinct words hit me like the beat of a war drum.

"All that I have left is in here," she said pointing to the shopping cart. "My clothes, my memories and my books."

Mary beckoned me closer and I looked past the dirty cups, rusty silverware and week-old newspapers. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Romeo & Juliet and Taming of the Shrew. Shaw's Heartbreak House and The Road to Equality. Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Old Man & the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Sun Also Risen. Volumes of Agatha Christie, Browning and Cervantes lined the bottom of her shopping cart like newspaper in a bird's cage. I stood shocked, more questions ran through my mind but I knew she could never answer any of them.

She held out the book in both hands and offered it to me. I could tell by her frozen look, it was a treasure that she had difficulty parting with. I took it gently and read its title. It was an early edition of Cervantes' Don Quixote; my favorite book. My mouth gaped open and I felt such a fool.

"I knew this book was meant for you the first time I looked past your eyes and saw the windmills."

I was flooded with gratitude. There were other feelings but I decided to ignore them - for now.

For the next month, I spent every spare minute speaking with Mary. I would arrive at her grate early and leave the city late. For lunch we would meet in Wellington Park. I would bring the sandwiches; she would bring what she could. We traded experiences and memories from our past. Every story she told had a point, a moral, something for me to take away and think about. She had become a teacher while I lazed in her words and learned more then I ever had from four years of university.

It was lunchtime on this particularly superb day. The sky was an opulent blue, touched here and there by a small number of little fleecy clouds that would serve as grace notes to set off the beauty of the day. Our discussions revolved around education.

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." Mary said. "Look around you. Do you think all of these people are smart? Smarter than me? Smarter than you? No. College and university gives you brain smarts, not an education."

"But I went to university for four years and learned quite a bit." I countered.

"What do you remember? What can you honestly say you learned?"

I had to think for a minute then shrugged my shoulders in defeat.

"Apply what is in your heart - that's real education. It's never too late to get an education, you know."

More often then not, our discussions came back to the right way of living and how we as humankind measure success. "Success isn't a journey or a destination. That's crap. T.S. Eliot said 'Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.' Look down the street at all the garbage and crap laying in the gutter and against the fences and tell me that isn't true. Even better, name a politician you would trust with your children's future. Are you more successful than me? You own more but that isn't what matters is it?"

"Of course not." I answered. "Joy is not in things; it is within ourselves."

Mary's face quirked in an almost smile. "There's hope for you, my son. The truth lies in a man's dreams… perhaps in this unhappy world of ours whose madness is better than a foolish sanity." I understood and felt the power of her words lock onto my soul. The values that I had held true all through my upbringing started to loose shape and strength. Chasing a promotion and wearing better clothes and driving fancier cars aren't what matters. Mary was right. Happiness lies in the helping of others, donating your love without expecting any in return. That's what she wanted to teach me.

For no particular reason, I began reciting. "We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpieces filled with straw. Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rat's feet over broken glass in our dry cellar." By the time I was finished, she had added her voice and the poem seemed more alive to me than it had ever been.

To live in Canada is to always hear winter breathing behind you. Soon the snow flew, making our park look as though it was veiled in bridal gauze. The expression on Mary's face on this day was different. As we walked, something was troubling her, something she didn't want to share. She coughed like a cat expelling a fur ball.

"Are you not well?" I asked.

"I feel it in my bones today." She smiled weakly and grabbed my arm as we walked. "I'll be fine, don't worry but I fear our conversations are drawing to a close. Do you have a pen and paper?" "Ending? Why? Are you moving into a shelter for the winter?" I asked as I retrieved what she requested from my briefcase.

She scribbled something then folded the paper and handed both items back.

"What did you write?" I asked.

"All the time we've known each other you never asked my name, so here it is. Look at it any time you feel small and unimportant or when life gets you down and you can't face the day. I have taught you all that I can. The rest is up to you. Your journey is just beginning but I fear mine is ending." I could see the tears brimming in her eyes. She drew in a deep breath. "Now turn around and walk away. Select the path that's right for you."

Don Quixote's epitaph flashed through my mind. 'For if he like a madman lived, at least he like wise old died.'

My vision blurred as I walked away, a rustle from behind me fading with each step. Was she OK? I didn't bother to check. I stopped to let the cold wind cool my heated face and opened the letter to reveal the single word Mary wrote. 'HOPE'.

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