I didn’t know till now that you could lose a friend and still think of her so often 12 years later. That’s a testament to how important Mary Grace Williams was in my life, and how big a part of my life she was.
Mary and I grew up and went to school together starting when we were about 6. It wasn’t till 6th grade, though, that we became really close friends. She was back from 3 years in India, where her father (who’s still around at age 100!) had been doing agricultural work. Not that long after, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and underwent chemo and radiation. That didn’t help in junior high, that free-for-all of cruelty toward anyone who seems at all different. Mary and I were different to begin with, and that probably formed a lot of our bond. What do I mean by that? Who knows — we just weren’t the most conventional people, and junior high is all about conforming. So neither of us did well there. But those years brought us closer, and that’s when she really became my best friend.
Back then we spent a lot of time after school at Lincoln Square — one of the nation’s first fully enclosed malls, according to their website (http://www.lincolnsquareurbana.com/) — shopping, looking at dress patterns, or having tea in that restuarant up some steps in a corner of the mall that is no longer there (anyone remember what it was called? It wasn’t good, but fun to go to). Mary had a lot more shopping stamina than I, which is not hard to achieve, and sometimes I wondered what we were doing there. But Mary had a way of setting the agenda, so I went along. I write about it now simply because when I think of those years, that’s one of the main places where I picture us
When we both got into Uni for our sophomore year of high school, our lives changed drastically. Suddenly it was okay not to fit in, and we had a ready-made group of friends who did things together on weekends. Though our class of 21 had a couple distinct factions for a while, we became close with a number of people there and in other classes, and formed lasting friendships. And here’s the thing that really stands out about Mary. She was always the one to draw people into our circle, and if it weren’t for her I might not be as close now to some of my friends from then. That makes her influence in my life all the greater.
Apart from the details of those years, what really sticks with me is the feeling of the time. At that age, life is so full of promise, and that makes it somehow more poetic and exciting. That’s the feeling I get when I think of sleeping over at Mary’s house outside on a balcony in the summer, under their 100-year-old oak tree, talking about — well, people, most likely. Or walking home together late at night from a party, which seemed a bit scary and exciting but was probably pretty safe. We also spent a lot of time in Mary’s room listening to music I wasn’t familiar with. There were some odd ones, like Harper’s Bizarre, and some kind of sappy ones, like Helen Reddy, but I was also left with a lasting love for Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs. Those songs still make me think of Mary. And the feeling of being that age is very much associated with Mary. She somehow brought romance and excitement into our lives, just by being herself.
She could also drive me crazy. She said shortly before she died that she didn’t want to be remembered as a saint, and I’m glad to say I don’t think of her that way. That would detract from remembering her as a person. Mary could seem uptight in some ways, which was annoying and also at odds with her extreme openness. In fact, she was so open about her thoughts and emotions that she could often make herself very vulnerable. No details come to mind about this, just the feeling that one of the things that was so wonderful about Mary was that she didn’t hold back in this way, and also thinking that I would not be able to make myself as vulnerable as she did. I probably should have been less withdrawn myself, but apparently I didn’t learn from her.
Our last year of high school, as some of you know, my parents moved away and I was stubborn about staying in Urbana for that year, so an arrangement was made for me to live with Mary’s family. That definitely taxed our friendship. Her parents were a lot more strict and less trusting than mine, which struck me as funny since Mary was the last kid on earth who would have done anything troublesome. She got her driver’s license before a lot of us and was sort of the desginated chauffeur — something her mother let her do, but not without suggesting we were going on joy rides. I wasn’t even sure what that meant! When we had parties that went till 4:00 am, they were with a few friends and all we did was talk. Anyway, it caused a strain that while her parents were strict with her they weren’t my parents and didn’t have the same authority over me. Also I wasn’t open with her when I started going out with someone I thought she didn’t approve of, and there was a lot I didn’t tell her. I wasn’t always smart about these things or the best friend I could be. Yet through all that, we remained close friends.
Over the years we both moved around. She visited me in San Francisco, I visited her in Boston, or we’d meet up in New York or DC. We went through major Virginia Woolf phases at the same time and always had a lot to talk about. That was the hardest thing when she died. I was used to talking with her on the phone every 2 – 3 weeks, and naturally I kept thinking of things I wanted to tell her, only to realize I couldn’t.
I wish I had talked to her more about death. She wanted to, and I was too bent on being hopeful and not going there. But at least I was able to see her a few weeks before she died, and to say at least some of what I wanted to say. And she was able to be at her home with friends and family till the very end.
A life like Mary’s, though it was cut short, is not wasted. She left such a lasting impression on so many of us. One of our friends named a daughter after her — something I would for sure have done too, had I had a daughter. And I know I’m not the only one who still thinks of her often. I just don’t generally take the time to stop and write down thoughts about her, so I thought it would be fitting to do that on this 12th anniversary of her death, which came on such an odd day. And it’s interesting that she chose the day, though she may not have been aware of the date. She was on a ventilator and had to be sedated to handle it, as it was hard on her. One day she was more alert and asked to be taken off the ventilator, and that’s when we knew it would be a matter of hours. I’m glad she had this control, and that she was lucid till the end and surrounded by friends and family. She is still with us in so many ways.
There’s so much more I could say about Mary, but this is already too long! I’d love to hear others’ reminiscences about her. (I know some of you knew her better than others, some maybe very little at all. Feel free to add others to this, too.) And thanks for reading!