When I was 9 years old a remarkable woman came into my life. She was the mother of someone I would eventually become best friends with for more than 50 years. I had been invited to my friend’s birthday party along with every other girl in our class. My friend’s mom, Mary Lou, had been careful to invite all the girls in the class, not just a few, but all of them, because that was the right thing to do. It was a life lesson that would serve me well. Include everyone. Don’t leave anyone out. Hurt feelings cannot be undone. I wish I had known back then what an impact this lady would have on my life.
One of the activities Mary Lou had planned for us was to make a booklet about some of our favorite things and about things we dreamed for our futures. She had carefully made little booklets tied together with yarn. On each page was an idea for us to think about, like “my dream house, my dream job, my favorite…..” She then set us loose with scissors, glue, and a huge stack of old magazines. Our instructions: cut out pictures for each page to illustrate our book. It was great fun, we made a huge mess, but we were also instructed at the end of the activity to clean it all up. Another important life lesson. I have been searching my house for the booklet, because 54 years later I know it is still tucked away somewhere in a box. I can still remember “my dream house picture”. It was a giant seashell underwater, with a mermaid sitting inside, sipping a cup of tea. It was an amazing, fun, project. I can remember taking it home with me and reading it over and over. I saved magazines so I could make more booklets and collages from the pictures. I cut out pictures and made my own paper dolls. Just one simple activity filled many happy days for me.
Fast forward a few years. My friend and I were now preteens, junior high kids, a bit full of ourselves. Mary Lou had given us permission to have a boy/girl Halloween party. We were going to make the basement into a haunted house with panty hose hanging from the ceiling to simulate cobwebs and we had an old “recording” of spooky sounds to play. As we made up the guest list we were instructed very specifically to invite everyone in our class, not just our specific friends. Some eye-rolling took place as we thought about the people who didn’t quite fit in. However, Mary Lou was in charge and we invited everyone. And we had a great time. We all wore costumes, mostly homemade, and had refreshments, and spent time in the back yard scaring each other. A couple of the kids we rolled our eyes about showed up and were graciously greeted. There is no doubt in my mind that this tiny social event meant a great deal to several classmates who usually were not included.
Mary Lou’s life was far from easy. She lost her husband at a very young age and was left with a toddler and baby on the way. I can picture her “picking herself up, dusting herself off, and starting over” with little complaint and hand-wringing. She was a strong woman. She did what she had to do. She eventually remarried, went back to school and got her teaching degree and helped support her family of now six children. She was a beautician along with her mother who ran a local beauty shop and she taught school for many years retiring from that profession, leaving behind a large group of local kids who still call her their favorite teacher.
My own parents loving parents, but we lived a simple life. I am sure Mary Lou was aware of this and for that reason, I was included in many opportunities she planned for her children. We traveled to a local university to hear the Vienna Boys Choir, we traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art, and I was included many times on weekends at Lake Erie, where her parents had a trailer and a boat. Childhood experiences that I would never have had if I hadn’t met Mary Lou.
Mary Lou was a soft-spoken woman. Everyone knew she meant business when she gave them instructions. I was always welcome at her home. Even with six kids underfoot (and usually a few neighbor kids) I always knew there was a place for me there. Another life lesson… what’s important in life are the people in your life. It’s clear to me now that Mary Lou always put her family and friends first, and of course, the people who didn’t always fit in. You can still go to her house and find kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and outlaws. The traffic through her home never stops, and very seldom even slows down.