Mary Ellis was a soul I wandered into many years ago in Chicago, where I was trying to play blues at night and work by day.
She was an Indiana farm girl who’d moved to Deerfield, Ill., with her husband, Holbert, a straight and taciturn man who managed to simultaneously exude both kindness and a sense of “just so.” I came to know them when the director of the animal shelter where I worked, an imperious woman we called “Iron Britches,” suggested that I might be able to help the family with some heavy work around the garden.
The first afternoon, I came intent on performing a good deed for hire and then going on my way. But before the day was over, we’d had tea and talked. As a young man I was taken with myself, and that’s mostly what I talked about; both Mary Ellis and her daughter, Mary Kay, were good listeners, however.
I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow our relationship completely changed, from hired hand to friendly visitor. Mr. Ellis was a smart and serious man; retired from Commonwealth Edison, he’d taken a position as township manager or something and was known for his sobriety and common sense. He was a man you just naturally respected, and even a shaggy, unkempt, hippie type like me knew there was something there to emulate.
Mostly, though, I visited with Mary (I now called her Granny) and Mary Kay. Their passions and interests were many; they were generous to numerous charities and served a lot of causes. Mary Kay did much with Amnesty International; Granny’s greatest passion was knitting caps and scarves and gloves for lonely sailors in the merchant marine.
Even when the subject was serious, our visits were light and breezy. Sometimes I would bring my guitar and sing a song, and sometimes Mary Kay would play the piano. She played so well, mostly classical and hymns, though I remember when she desperately tried to learn ragtime. The notes for the “Maple Leaf Rag” came out perfectly, but the syncopation was never quite there. Oh, we had fun with that, as we did with our little plays and phrases. For a time all our sentences would start with words like “avant” or “forsooth,” and we would have a weekly argument about tea. Granny loved the stuff dearly but it was banned by her doctor, and she was reduced to Postum. I had little use for either but would consent to tea—conspiratorially waving the vapors toward Granny and thrilling at how she reveled in even a whiff of her beloved beverage.
When Papa died, they were two elderly women left alone, but they made do. Mary Kay would endeavor to learn about any mechanical project just so she could understand what should be done. Granny Ellis would complain about being muddle-headed and pixilated, but she was sharp as a tack.
As the years went on, my visits became less frequent, but I always returned. I took my wife-to-be, Debbie, to see Granny and Mary Kay, and she took to them instantly (and they to her). I knew right then that I’d made the right choice.
When we moved back home to the mountains, I never thought it would be the last time I’d see Granny and Mary Kay. Over the years, though, we carried on a correspondence that was almost as good as our visits. I’m always excited when I see a letter from Mary Kay in the box, knowing it’ll be good for an hour or so of sweet memory and enjoyment. It’s funny. When I was a scruffy kid full of himself and nonsense, they always saw the best in me and never ceased to tell me how special I was—not just to them.
Granny passed a couple of years ago at over 100. I have a picture of her thumbtacked to the wall, with that sweet smile and her knitting needles working on a watch cap for a sailor she didn’t even know. Over the years, Mary Kay has sent me copies of old letters to the editor that Granny wrote in the ‘30s and ‘40s. She was quite an activist, but she was never shrill. She was the kindest person I’ve ever known. For her, kindness wasn’t a trait or a strategy: It was her nature, her soul. What a wonder that one’s very being should serve as an example, an embodiment of peace—kindness and caring as a natural state.
Today I received a letter from Mary Kay. She told me of her health and her goings on and, as always, she sent me some news clippings she thought might interest me. In my previous letter, I’d expressed some frustration about fighting the changes we see in our mountains, and about fighting at all. Among the things Mary Kay sent was a poem she’d found in an envelope Granny had put up and marked “treasures.”
You say the efforts that I make
Will do no good;
They will never prevail
To tip the hovering scale
Where justice hangs in the balance.
I don’t think
I ever thought they would,
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose which side
Shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.
— Bonaro Overstreet
I knew two old ladies who between them barely tipped a scale. Ah, but the stubborn ounces of their weight—what a difference they have made.
[Mark Jamison lives on 67 acres in Jackson County’s Speedwell Community with his five dogs. When not tending the land, he tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]