And the Tree was Happy: A Memoir for Mary Schwartz
Memoir by Michael Usey
13 May 2011
I don’t know what being a real person means to you, being authentically human—there are so many different ideas about how to live a good life—but for me one large part of it comes down to is fear. The essence of my Christian faith is to live without fear. Not to be afraid—of anything, really. Not to be afraid to live out loud this beautiful and dangerous life we’ve been given. Not to be afraid of the living God that loves us like sons and daughters. Not to be afraid of death, which is no friend but is not really an enemy either, since every person owns one to God. Not to be fearful to make mistakes, to take calculated risks, to live wild and free.
I use to think that my main message as a shaman was to say to people, “Do the right thing,” since most of us know have some idea what the right thing is. Now after a few years in ministry I understand my meta-message much differently. My main message as a pastor is to say those same words that all the divine messengers say when they first speak with humans: Do not be afraid. God wants us to live without fear. When we are afraid of being in love, we cut off other people; when we’re afraid of hurting our bodies, we stop doing sports; when we’re afraid of failure, we quit trying new things. Fear is what squashes the sweet fruit of our beautiful lives.
I visited Mary once at Beacon Place, a Wednesday night about a month ago and she was sleepily sitting by the window. We chatted briefly about her children, and grandchildren too. Her delight in both was a tonic to me and to her, I think. I told her that I was planning to have a part in her memorial service. What did she want me to tell them on her behalf? She said, Tell them that I am not afraid. I have lived a good life, she said, and although she did not want to go just yet, she was not afraid to die. I believed her and thought about her all the way home that night—how many people at death’s door could truthfully say they were not afraid? I don’t think there are many.
Mary was the middle child, with an older brother Gordon and younger sister Joanne, who I believe are here today with us. Her mother made their clothes and dressed her identically with her sister. She was called Happy as a child, because she was always smiling. I don’t think it’s a nickname she would have revealed to us. Born in Collingswood New Jersey, she went to high school in Syracuse, New York. She played a games on the frozen lakes called either Chicken, Crack the Whip, and Closest to the Hole, the last of which as the name implies you’d try to get the closest to the hole in the ice without falling in. One time she lost that game and still the scar to prove it. Always athletic, she was a soccer coach for her kids and carted them to hockey games and other athletic events.
The loves of her life were numerous: certainly her grandchildren and the Center for Creative Leadership were ones she was the most passionate about. With her grandkids, she loved to watch Ghostbusters and sing Queen’s We Will Rock You, a power ballad sung by Queen written by Brian May in 1977. (Perhaps she and Freddie Mercury are singing it even now.) Even when she was getting the news of how sick she really was, she wanted to know when she could go back to work, and when she could see her grandsons play soccer. On one of the beach trips she had been to Target and the Dollar store and planned an Olympics for Aidan and Benjamin, with something new to do every day.
Mary was passionate about her work as Senior Librarian at the Center for Creative Leadership, where she had worked for 20 years. She adored her co-workers and would have loved to see so many of you here today. She had earned a BA in English from Ohio Northern, but she went back to school at age 40 to earn a Masters in Library Science with the goal of working at the CCL. She started there part-time and it took her 9 years from the time she started her Masters to earn a full time position. Her kids remember that on some Sunday afternoons, she said to them, “I can’t wait for Monday morning to come so that I can be back at work.” (Show of hands of how many of us feel that way? Since there are many members of my congregation here, let me quickly say that I of course do.) Mary was the rare person who loved her job and adored her colleagues, and really couldn’t wait to get back to both.
Mary meet her husband at Ohio Northern when he pulled up in a car and asked her to have one of her sorority sisters there that night for a date. When he returned at the appointed time, Mary decided that she would be that sister and they dated. She called herself Stacy during those days, so they were known as Stacy and Herbie, since he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, like the one of Disney movie fame. They have been divorced for 23 years, but they are still friends, mainly because they had a common goal of raising and nurturing their three children.
Mary loved to read, and her tastes were wide and eclectic, from Harry Potter and Shel Sliverstein to the specialized reading on leadership and creativity she did for her work—and which she also wrote. She loved reality TV, especially shows like Survivor, and the family even played a board game version of it at home (No comment on who always got voted off first). She would have loved to gone on the Amazing Race with one of her children, and Dancing with Stars was a favorite since she loved to dance jazz. The NBA team the Utah Jazz was a big favorite too, that team with the most incongruent name in professional sports (I mean, how jazzy is Utah, really? When they moved from NOLA they should have changed the name.)
Mary loved watching movies with family and friends: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Knight’s Tale, Black Swan, Ghostbusters (which you must admit is a diverse spread of films). She also loved to do research, in particular for her job but also on behalf of her family, so she was the go-to-girl for consumer issues. She loved her cocker spaniel Roscoe, who lived with her 19 years. He must have been cared for—I’d never heard of a cocker living that long. She simply loved walking in gardens, most of the Bicentennial gardens hers in Greensboro, where she wants her ashes to be spread, so that her children and grandchildren might walk there and think of her. She sought out new gardens around the state too, most recently finding a lovely one in Wilmington for Cindy and her to stroll around.
She did love to play games with her family—Cranium, Scattergories, Pictionary, Battle of the Sexes, and others were all favorites. Mary knew how to plan a party; she was that right mix between being detail orientation and a woman who know how to have a lot of fun. When she was a member of Beth David, she had all the kids become daughter and sons of the commandment, and planned their Bat and Bar Mitzvah parties to perfection. Although the quality of the entertainment varied: Cindy had a live band, David had a DJ, and Michael said he had a jukebox. David’s featured a hockey puck cake, complete with inscription. Mary was a party person, featuring balloons, candy, a casino party once with candy cigs and betting games. She could cook taco salad, and Mexican pizza (but never pea soup).
When she was helping to plan Cindy and Erik’s wedding, which was at a Charleston plantation on the river, she brought five different lanterns in the car with her down to South Carolina for them to consider and approve. It is this kind of attention to detail that is unusual enough, but when it is combined with a person who loves to celebrate and know how to treasure the moment, well, that person is special.
Mary had meet with a lunch bunch for 20 years; four of them who started meeting at the time Mary was finishing her masters at UNCG. They celebrated their children’s graduations, and hosted wedding and baby showers for each other’s families. Mary was also part of an investment club that she helped form, such were the diversity of her interests.
When I asked Cindy and Erick, David and Alison and Michael when Mary was the happiest, David quickly spoke up and said, “She was happiest when I was born.” Such humility. He did not relent of his claim of being the apex of Mary’s happiness, no matter the jeers of his siblings and wife. David is the main suspect for the person who placed the Christmas ornament on the tree that says, “For My Favorite Child.” We’ll see who claims it.
My hunch is that it is closer to the truth to say she was happiest either at her beloved work, or when she was surrounded by her loving family, particularly around Aidan and Benjamin. She would have loved to be around for the birth of her third grandson, whose coming out party is planned for this June. She called Aidan and Benjamin her “darling angels.”
Mary was many things: determined, stanch, well-planned, creative, bright, fun-loving and fearless. She had a zest for life that probably came down from her grandmother and mother; this zest favored everything she did, and makes her absence all the more keen, as though the spice of this family’s life has been blanched and muted.
She read to her children and grandchild from the poems and stories of Shel Sliverstein. His angular and offbeat poems have been delighting readers for a generation. Shel, you might know, wrote the song “A Boy Named Sue,” which Johnny Cash made famous in 1969, and Shel, like Mary, died too young.
Like Mary, his poetry has the mix of the real, the fearless, the determined and the odd that gives it a universal appeal to kids and adults alike. As in Shel’s story The Giving Tree, Mary found her greatest happiness in giving to others—to those with whom she worked and with her family. She gave and gave, and the tree was happy. It is his poetry whose quotes are scattered in the worship bulletin, and it’s in his words that I find an appropriate summary of Mary’s life, love, and fearlessness:
Listen to the mustn’ts child.
Listen to the don’ts.
Listen to the impossible, the shouldn’ts, the won’ts.
Listen to the never haves,
then listen close to me: anything can happen, child, anything can be.