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Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: Mary at the lighthouse

When I was twenty I worked at a nursing home as the activities director. The home was located in a transitional urban neighborhood, and residents included Irish Catholic immigrants, Eastern European Jews, Southern Black Baptists, White Anglo Saxon Protestants, the mentally ill, the developmentally delayed, the senile, and folks who had all their facilities intact. The one common denominator was poverty. None of them could afford anything better.
Mary was a slender, white-haired woman with stooped shoulders. A pixie haircut framed her delicate childlike features, while deep blue eyes revealed the tempest within, shifting from joy to fear in an instant. Mary sat in a corner of the activity room each day hovering over an embroidery sampler. When other residents became agitated, she carried on without notice. Eventually Mary would set her project aside, curling into herself, feet pulled onto the chair, rocking silently, her eyes going blank as they gazed into space.
Mary never initiated conversation and only responded to questions with a nod, perhaps adding “Yes, yes,” in a surprisingly husky voice, her eyes and lips smiling for a moment before retreating. Any attempt at conversation received a similar reply. I discovered Mary had a sister who lived near the ocean an hour’s drive from the home, though to my knowledge she had never visited. When she invited Mary for lunch I offered to drive her there, hoping to learn more about Mary’s life. She agreed to the plan.
The day of our visit, Mary wore her usual attire, a faded but tidy shirtwaist dress from another era and a pair of childlike sneakers with anklets. She sat quietly in the back seat. When we arrived, Mary’s sister Laura welcomed us at the door to her cottage. Stepping inside, we were surrounded by antique clocks of every shape and size. Their dozens of pendulums swishing side to side created a watery flow of sound at once soothing and energizing. I wondered how Mary fit into this picture.
Mary and her sister embraced lightly. Their conversation was brief. Laura served grilled cheese sandwiches. She asked Mary a question now and then, receiving the usual minimal response. As we finished with tea and cookies, Laura explained her husband’s passion for clocks. There are resources in this household, and Mary has so little, I thought. While Laura and I washed dishes, Mary remained at the table. In the kitchen I learned her story.
Half a century ago, in the 1920s, she was a glamorous young woman who enjoyed dancing, dating and the latest flapper fashions. Laura idolized her older sister. When she became mentally ill, Mary was sent away. Laura visited often, but when she married, her husband severed their relationship. This lunch visit was arranged in secret. Laura’s husband had erased Mary’s existence from their lives. We would have to leave well before he arrived home.
We took a short drive to the ocean. Mary hopped in the back seat; Laura and I chatted. Checking on Mary through the rear-view mirror, I sensed her engagement with the scenery, a liveliness in her eyes. We arrived at the site of a lighthouse and stepped out for a look. Laura seemed ready to return to the car and head home.
Then Mary spoke. “Let’s walk down to the ocean,” she said. I had never heard her initiate conversation of any sort. I had never before heard Mary request anything of anyone. Laura hesitated, perhaps anxious her husband would arrive home before she sent us on our way. I jumped at the moment and headed down the path with Mary while her sister waited in the car. We arrived at the lighthouse, which had a small bench at its base facing out to sea. “Sit down here,” Mary invited me, and we did, gazing at the distant horizon, breathing the salt air, bathing in the cool sun. “It’s so beautiful,” she said, her eyes caressing our surroundings. “Yes,” I agreed. I wanted this moment to last.
We sat in silence a long while. There was a lightness around Mary, a feeling of the gracious loveliness she still had to offer if only it could be accessed. On the drive back to the nursing home, Mary gazed out the window from her back seat. Too soon, her bright presence dimmed and she returned to her inner place. At the nursing home, Mary stepped lightly out of the car, thanking me softly.
I watched her walk away, slender shoulders stooped forward as she returned to a life where she would continue to embroider flowers and rock in a corner until the end of her days, but where there was no lighthouse to sit beside and gaze out to sea, calming the demons that lived in her head. I wondered if that stylish flapper was still nestled somewhere inside her and if there was a time, deep in the night, when she still danced to jazz music in the latest roaring twenties fashions.

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