I will not be with you on Monday at the memorial service for Mary. I will be camping in the mountains of North Carolina with two of my three sons. Somehow that seems fitting, although I would love to see all my old friends who will be gathered there. But I will be thinking a lot about Mary as we hike, and when I point out something about the mosses we see, or give name to the trees we pass, or try to get my teenage boys to slow down long enough to see that there is pleasure in the journey and not only in the destination, part of Mary will be with us.
It was joy to be in nature with Mary. You did not go fast. By then she was not a particularly fast hiker, but I suspect she never had been. She stopped often to observe things and, always the teacher, to share with you what she saw. If you were interested, Mary would go on, and in that moment you caught a glimpse the fantastic profusion of nature and Marys great, religious, pleasure in it.
Two trips stand out. One was to that marvelously named Cloudland Canyon, one of Marys favorite places. My memory is more than a bit hazy, but as I write this more and more of it comes back to me. No doubt I was then full of the anxieties of youth, lust and shame, ambition and doubt, and all the rest. But what I remember is a golden moment between childhood and adulthood, when we were just venturing out amidst the shoals of life.
We had decided to hike from our campsite on the brim down into the canyon on a hot day, friends in search of adventure, not quite sure where we were going or how we would get back. Mary had stayed back at the tent. She did not need our adventure.
At the bottom the river ran cold and clean through the dark green banks of rhododendron. We were hot, and it beckoned us. We stripped off and dove in, skinny young boys testing the waters, seal pups before the real hunt. (K. abstained, but we hoped she noticed.) You do not know then how few such moments there are in life, when the world is a stream and friends and time has no meaning.
The memory has stayed with me nearly half a lifetime now, but I suppose it was only a half an hour then before time began again, and we put our clothes back on and began the climb back up. It was later than we expected when we made it back and Mary had been worried about us. But there was no reproach there, only love. And as we told her of our epic, with emphasis on the skinny dip, of course, she gave no hint that our tale was not the first she had ever heard.
The other trip is even hazier, the memory entangled with another. Blue Hole was our favorite camping spot, two hours out of Atlanta, past Gainesville, just north of Helen, up the dirt road as far as it would go, and then into the woods and down to the falls. A magical place. Although I had been there many times, I think I was only there once with Mary. What I remember of that trip is the glow of foxfire at dusk and the whiteness of the falls as they caught the last dying light, and the pleasure of being able to share our refuge with Mary.
But I cannot think of Blue Hole, or of Mary, without thinking of Costa. She was there the day he slid over High Shoals Falls and our childhood ended. I was not there, but I was. The week before, only a few days after graduation, he and I had waded down the stream from Blue Hole looking for the top of the great falls. We had not found it, and I dont remember now why we turned back that day. But Costa was always the brave one, the curious one, the adventurous one, and he went too far.
It was, Mary told me later, the second great tragedy of her life, her husbands death returning from Malaysia, of course, the first. It nearly broke her heart, and I know she felt tremendous guilt, as we all did who loved him and lived. No doubt she reproached herself for not, somehow, stopping him, as if she could. Mary never stopped us, though. She had the great wisdom to know that it was not for her shield us from the world, that she could not anyway, but to help us find our own way in it.
Only now do I fully realize what a gift we had at Druid Hills, that others did not have a teacher whose home was always open, who you could tell anything, who was there, every evening, in that chair in her living room, year after year, a safe haven as we navigated the passage out of childhood. And if many of us have found our way in the world, some part of that is because we had a teacher, a mentor, and friend who left her door open.