Mary's hugs united all those who gathered--ran Saturday Feb. 15
My friend Mary Stone died at home on Feb. 1, a day when the world's eyes were trained on streaks of fire raining from the skies. "Tears on the face of God," someone said, describing the Columbia break-up that Saturday, and I won't argue, though Mary might have.
She was not a sentimentalist, and she was having nothing to do with tears, especially at her memorial celebration five days later at St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Sevierville. Mary planned the service in advance and she was determined to set an upbeat tone. In a message delivered by Father Robert Rizner, who preceded Father Bob Henley as rector, Mary instructed us to celebrate her soul's release, and she reinforced those instructions by providing mounds of shrimp, bottles of champagne and other delights to be served in the fellowship hall immediately following. She made it clear we were not to dwell on the destruction of her flesh.
Still, we'll all miss the warm body she used to lend for hugging to anyone she cared about, much as we'll miss the unadorned Saturday clothes she wore even on Sunday, and her straight-ahead, steely-eyed way of talking, and the way her round, creased face used to break into sudden laughter.
Whether delivering punch lines or hard truths, she had this notion people should speak plain to one another and make their purpose and meaning clear. Her mission in life was both clearer and more meaningful to those who knew her than the missions of astronauts who died the same day. If they didn't live and die in vain, then surely neither did Mary.
She was an activist in the best traditions of activism, carrying her crusades forward on many fronts at once. Results mattered to Mary. As chairwoman for the Sevier County Council on the Aging and founder of EZ Access, which provides low-cost transportation for disadvantaged folks, she improved lives. She launched campaigns, periodicals, books and a prize-winning online magazine--"Vintage Journal"--extolling the abilities and dignity of old folks. She never used phrases like "the elderly" or "senior citizens." Even at 78, she hated euphemisms that smacked of condescension.
"We're not elderly," she'd assert. "Let's be honest. We're old."
Everything she did was built on the bedrock of plain truth. In Mary's world, we owed each other our truth, and sitting around that table in the fellowship hall in St. Joseph's during Sunday morning forums I heard lots of plain truth from a variety of perspectives. Mary insisted on it. Still, she leavened hard lessons and assertive missions with one simple act that long ago became her trademark gesture.
She hugged with abandon.
Those strong and generous hugs offered absolution. You could depend on them. Following a spirited debate they provided balm for wounds, oil on troubled waters. Mary believed reasonable people could disagree about a great many things and still yet revel in the shared wonders and pleasant peculiarities of existence. She doled hugs daily in public meetings or serendipitous encounters, or in those moments when we acknowledged "God's Peace" during church. Her hugs cut through ritual and red tape and mannerisms and misunderstandings to offer a basic truth. "This is my soul acknowledging yours," such hugs seemed to say, at least to me, though I'll not speak for her. Likely as not, she'd find a way to set me straight.
I first met Mary in 1982 when I interviewed her for a freelance article about her work as a macramé artist and writer, just two of many talents. We found that we shared a good many things in common that first day, including an interest in writing and a dislike of jargon and dogma--religious, political or otherwise. When I entered the embrace of St. Joseph's Church fifteen years later, one of many pleasant surprises I experienced was finding Mary there, arms extended. I felt singled out, proud of this inclusion. It took several visits before I noticed that Mary hugged everyone. It was hard not to take such hugs for granted.
The last time my wife Jeanne and I saw Mary, we sat together at a counter in her home office. Tributes to her work, old photographs, letters and other mementos crowded the walls and shelves. Nothing unusually profound or deep came out of our conversation that day. We laughed a little, clinked glasses of homemade wine, deplored the coming war with Iraq, inquired after family and friends, then Jeanne and I stood to collect goodbye hugs, never dreaming that two weeks later we'd be celebrating her soul's release.
Ashes from Mary's mortal remains provided ballast for a beautiful bottle she had crafted and designated as her body's final abode. It was fitting, for that vessel embraced the colors of the sea and the sky and these mountains Mary loved.
Father Rizner noted that all gathered there for Mary's memorial celebration shared at least one thing in common. At one time or another, Mary had hugged us all.