It was moving day. Chaos. Furniture scattered and boxes piled high in every room. My dad had taken a job in northern Virginia and we left my childhood home on the South Side of Chicago to set down new roots. We were tired, hot, hungry and thirsty. What a gracious gesture this was. It was just what we needed and somehow she knew.
Our family had never moved before. While anticipating new adventures, it was also unsettling to be in uncharted territory. So this act of kindness touched us all. Were new neighbors always this nice and thoughtful?
A few days later, she rang the doorbell again. This time a homemade carrot cake graced her hands. I had never heard of a carrot cake before. It must be some southern specialty that seemed so foreign and exotic to me. Beyond delicious, we fought over the last piece and smear of cream cheese frosting left on the plate. It’s been my favorite flavor of cake ever since.
Could we be any more fortunate to have this considerate, lovely lady live across the street?
No. We could not.
She made our move worthwhile.
My parents became dear friends with Bill and Maureen McGarey. They had four boys, we were a family of four girls.
Mrs. McGarey took me under her wings that summer. She drove us down Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. I learned about Army/Navy lace tablecloths. We soaked in the National Gallery of Art and I still have the Paul Gauguin print I purchased in the gift shop. We browsed through every floor of Garfinckel’s department store. I adored everything about her.
She is feisty, brutally honest, elegant and demands respect.
Over the years she became my mentor, role model and lifelong friend.
In 1929, Mrs. McGarey was born in Washington, D.C. Native “Washingtonians” are a rare breed. Her father died when she was five so her mother, now supporting three small children, put herself through law school and became a well-known immigration attorney. For women, that was unheard of in those days.
As a little girl, she would wander over to the White House like you would to the local park. During the 1930’s, anyone with small children could participate in the Easter Egg Roll. No need for a lottery to select the 30,000 children and parents that now must attend in shifts.
She would rent herself out for a nickel to any adults that had no children but wanted to enter. After getting them safely inside, she would turn back and wait for her next customers and become their child for the day. Finally, the gatekeeper told her, “Little girl, that’s your last trip in.” She made a total of forty-five cents for a day’s work. Isn’t she crafty!
What’s not to love?
She met Eleanor Roosevelt during her frequent White House visits.
No boring career for this brilliant and savvy lady. She entered the Foreign Service and was stationed first in Tokyo and then Rome. She met her beloved Bill in Japan and they eventually settled in the home across the street from ours. That is where she still resides today.
Our friendship has travelled from Virginia to Chicago. Chicago to Atlanta. Atlanta to Chicago.
She was the first person to call me in the hospital after the birth of our first child.
She wrote a beautiful letter after my father passed away thirty-one years ago that I still keep.
She comforted me after my mother passed away twelve years ago with letters, phone calls and memories.
Never owning a computer of any kind, we communicate by telephone and letters.
I have saved almost every one. She claims that her handwriting is illegible because of her arthritis, but I cherish her familiar script and personalized stationary embossed in deep green.
When I plan to call her for our long chat, I feel an urgent need to brush up on “current events” and read about fifty newspapers. She’s that smart. I believe she knows the name of every current member of the Senate, House of Representatives, Cabinet member and which Ambassadors still haven’t been appointed. I sit up straight and mind my manners when we talk. And try not to swear.
She collects presidential memorabilia and reads so many books she could open a library in her home. She loves sharp cheese, shrimp salad, a stiff drink and McGriddles from McDonald’s.
We send one another gifts for birthdays and Christmas, though at our ages, we don’t need a thing. Her box will be the last gift opened on Christmas morning because I know it will bring tears.
A lifelong Republican and Catholic, she laments that Donald Trump is an embarrassment to our country and the Catholic Church abuse scandal is simply unforgivable.
After a fall in her home a few years ago, her neck was broken. Her frail bones never did heal so she is rather home-bound now and must use a walker and wear a neck brace at all times. She has never once complained.
Lula, her housekeeper, keeps her well-fed and in great spirits. Her children, their spouses and grandchildren spoil her with love and are a constant presence in her life. She has friends all over the country.
Every time we talk on the phone, she will tell me how good they are to her and how lucky she is. What meals and books they dropped off, where they took her for lunch or a movie. Her annual Christmas dinner at Tim and Jennifer’s home with the candlelight and beef tenderloin is always a favorite. I remind her how wonderful and kind SHE was and still is to all of them so why wouldn’t they?
When you’ve spent your entire life being considerate, generous and loving to your family and friends, they tend to pay it back to you when you need them. She raised amazing men and I am not a bit surprised.
Only in the last few years have I felt comfortable enough to call her “Maureen” instead of Mrs. McGarey. I hope she doesn’t think I’m being too casual or disrespectful.
Maureen turned ninety on March 14th.
There were celebratory lunches, calls, cards, dinners and toasts.
She’s quite proud of the fact that she never drank bottled water or ate an organic meal in her lifetime and is still in great health.
Maureen is the last person living from my mom and dad’s circle of friends so our shared history is priceless. We often talk about “her friend” Bill, my parents and reminisce about cocktails by the Christmas tree, dad’s outrageous records he made her listen to and our of love of all things Irish. She wants to come back half Italian in her next life. I am quite confident she will.
Do I think of her as a mother figure?
Like a mother, she’s given me unconditional love, listens, celebrates my success and comforts during times of sorrow. No subject is off limits, even Hortense’s slutty behavior. In every milestone of my life, she’s played a part. She inquires about my children and grandchildren with actual interest. We’ve shared heartbreaking personal stories. She’s the calm in the middle of a storm. We end every letter or phone call with “I love you.”
To this day, every time a new neighbor moves in, I will drop off a “welcome gift” and note. It’s my way of acknowledging the lesson she taught me forty-five years ago. It’s a kind, gracious and neighborly thing to do. This simple but profound gesture has guided me throughout my life.
I am glad you are here. I am happy to meet you. You are important. Welcome. I am here for you.
A lifelong friendship began with a ham and cheese sandwich, a glass of lemonade and a warm smile.
Thank you for that.
Happy Mother’s Day.
I love you.
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