Ode to Mary

9 Oct

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Mary Bernadette DeHarnais. I only met Mary a few years ago. It was around the time I had stopped teaching and decided to become more politically active. Mary was “older” and clearly an experienced and fiery champion for social justice. I spent a lot of time with Mary attending important events and protests. Only a couple of times did we spend time talking or visiting personally. On one of the occasions, we talked about mothering two boys. Hers are about 20 years older than mine, but still, we shared the feeling that they were not as interested as being in touch as we were. We compared notes to what we hear friends relate regarding their daughters. We concluded that our sons viewed their mothers as strong and busy women, taking for granted that we would be there whenever.

Mary’s oldest son confirmed that when he eulogized her. He was funny and poignant. He admitted he had been stupid. The younger one absolved them all. He told the story of spending time at his grandparents’ home and how dark and quiet it was. He learned later in life that his mother’s home had been violent and that she had escaped. She had escaped to a convent, then met and married his father. Together they had raised their boys in love and light and laughter.

What is remarkable about Mary is how her life was about liberation. She liberated herself from her parents. She liberated herself from that convent. She liberated herself from an oppressive religion. She liberated herself from loneliness. And finally, she liberated herself from cancer. And she did all this while being a loving, kind, giving, woman.

Mary was also critical and gripping and opinionated and difficult. I remember the first time I crossed her, I thought about choosing to avoid her after that, but thought better of it. Mary had too much to teach me about the good fight. I made the right decision.

One of the first things Mary had gotten me to do was to drive Marie Torain to the Pauli Murray kick-off in Durham. On the way over, Mary kept trying to pry Marie into telling me her story. How her parents were from Hillsborough but fled in 1904. She returned in the 40s after falling for a Southern man. She rode the train South and was forced to change seats to a “Negro” car when they stopped in Maryland. That was as far as we got between Hillsborough and Durham – the trip was too short to hear more.  Mary finally said, “Allison, you have to write Marie’s biography. There is just no one else to do it.”

I made sure to get Marie Torain’s phone number after the service.

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