Remembering Mary, the neighbor who never fell in love

Thanks to the miracle of podcasts, I was finally able last evening to catch Ira Glass’ tribute to a neighbor who died this month. His friend, Mary.

Perhaps you remember Mary from his video on how to listen to a podcast, which he produced when Serial first started.

The essay, which ran at the conclusion of This American Life’s Ask a Grownup show, is as personal an insight into Glass as you’re ever going to hear. But it also motivates us to reflect on the vast drama of people living their lives every day — drama that usually goes unnoticed but reflects the essence of who we are, quirks and all. Pain and all.

Glass met Mary at a dog park after his marriage broke up. She took care of her 73-year-old disabled cousin. What happens to him now?

She lived her whole life on the same two blocks. She’d never been in love.

Imagine that. She’d never been in love.

Journalists often fan out across America every now and again to find the real America. Their stories usually involve people’s jobs or politics and not much more. They rarely involve people who live their lives without falling in love.

What does it mean to be a grown-up? “I feel tired in this way that I definitely did not when I was younger,” Glass says.

What does it mean to grow old? “When you get to a certain age, there aren’t many grown-ups older than you to ask advice from. The ones you love die off,” he writes.

It’s a lovely and heartbreaking tribute.

A few days ago, my friend Mary Ahearn died. Mary was 89. For the last 10 years, I’ve talked to her nearly every day. She and I met in the dog park and we organized our lives to meet there at 10:00 each night, which took a little more organization for me than for her. She’d been retired for years. I had a job. I traveled for my job. She’d had many very old-fashioned New York City jobs. She was a telephone switchboard operator and then the switchboard supervisor at Altman’s Department Store for years, when both Altman’s and telephone switchboards existed. Lived on a pension from a union in a rent-controlled apartment.

When I traveled and when her health eventually stopped her from going to the park, we’d talk on the phone every night. OK, this is a very personal thing to say on the radio, but my wife and I separated a few years ago. And so for years now, Mary has usually been the person who I talked to last before I’d go to sleep. That’s not a part of your day you let just anybody into, but I’ve never had a friendship like my friendship with her, where you just check in every day.

Mary is the person who I would watch presidential debates and election results with. And so most nights, she and I would catch up on the news. And we would talk about my day. And then she and I would talk about what happened that day with her and with John, her developmentally disabled cousin, 73 years old, who she cared for and housed for over four decades. Mary cooked dinner for John every night. Pot roast and mashed potatoes kinds of dinners. Dinners she did not eat herself.

John’s conversation style was to walk into a room and make a bitter pronouncement on some subject, often something he saw on the news. In the last year, he’s become convinced that there are bedbugs in his room. Or some kind of bugs. Something that is biting him in his sleep. And although there’s nothing there– really, there’s just nothing at all; it’s all in his head– he got obsessed. And he would haul shirts and pillow cases into the dining room to show Mary, insisting that the little dots in the fabric are living creatures and not just like the design of the cloth.

And for months, I’d been telling Mary like, this is a new turn for John. He was always incredibly bullheaded, but now he had crossed over into something new. This just seemed like delusion and seemed sad in this whole new way. And I just thought we should have the exterminator come in and put on a big show and pretend to spray for bed bugs and put John’s mind at ease. And nobody in this world had more compassion for John than Mary, but somehow this bedbug thing was a bridge too far for her. She did not want to indulge him on this one. She felt like if she started spending money on that, what was going to be next? It just seemed like a slippery slope.

So every night, I would hear the latest with John and the bedbugs and the various relatives. Maureen and her kids in Washington state. John’s brother, Neil, who I’ve never met, but I know all about his years on the NYPD and his pension and what booze he likes, his recent surgery, his recovery from the surgery. I have relatives of my own– lots of them– I don’t know as well as this man, Neil, who I’ve never met.

Mary and I were good enough friends that we would bore each other, which you only get with your family and your closest friends who you spend so much time with. Some nights I would be aware that she was ushering me off the phone. She would say to me, you must be very tired, which I knew was the signal for she’d had enough of me for the night.

Mary lived her whole life in one spot in apartments on the same two blocks of New York City. This is 9th Avenue between 20th and 22nd Street. She died two blocks from where she grew up. She saw the neighborhood change over the years from longshoremen who worked the Chelsea Piers to gay men in the 1970s– the YMCA of the song YMCA is just a couple blocks over on 23rd Street– to rich people today. She seemed to be constantly writing checks to help out various nieces and their kids who needed the help. John basically showed up at her door in the mid-’70s. Nobody else in the family would take him.

Her friend Gene came and lived with her for years. Red was a homeless guy she took in when he got his life together. Now he’s a nurse. Beau needed a place when gentrification knocked him out of one of the last cheap apartments in the neighborhood. Her cousin Tom stayed during a rough patch. Everybody knew Mary was a soft touch for strays needing a home. Dogs, cats, people.

She and I would do the New York Times crossword puzzle together. She had a dark sense of humor, was quick with a fatalistic joke. When we’d go to plays and movies, she was fine if it was a comedy but always preferred something sad. She said it was the Irish in her. Three years ago, I was invited to give a speech in Ireland and Mary went with me as my plus-one. Though her house is decorated with little Irish sayings and knickknacks, this was her first trip to the country, and we visited the church in Kinsale where her father was baptized in 1889, before he left for America.

She was not somebody to turn to for relationship advice. She’d never been in love. As well as we knew each other, and as much as we talked, I could never bring myself to ask if she had ever kissed anybody– boy, man, woman. I’m fairly sure the answer was no, and I didn’t want to make her say it out loud. The only crush that she ever admitted to was a boy she knew back when she was a teenager and got tuberculosis and lived in a TB ward uptown. He was smart, soft-spoken. And if I remember right, he also had TB, though he didn’t survive it.

So she knew about as much about being in a marriage as I knew about running a 1950s-era telephone switchboard, which meant that if I had a bad day with my wife, Anaheed, and that’s all I was thinking about, Mary was not a helpful person to talk to at all. For one thing, she was entirely and uncritically on my side in any dispute. Even disputes where I knew I was in the wrong and I told her I was in the wrong, she would come back time and again to a kind of Depression era view of marriage as a kind of practical arrangement that was not necessarily about happiness.

In her view, I was making most of the money in the family. Anaheed was comfortable, living in a nice apartment, could buy stuff she wanted. Why would Anaheed complain? Why wasn’t she grateful? She had it so easy. I would try to explain to her the things that I was doing that rightly disappointed Anaheed. Mary would shake her head. I don’t see what she has to complain about.

Today’s radio show is about asking a grown-up for advice. I am fully grown up. And I’m older than I sound on the radio. I just turned 58. That’s basically 60. That’s old enough that, last week, when I read something by somebody in their 30s who said, well, of course nobody ever fully feels like a grown-up, I wanted to say, no, I actually feel like a grown-up. I feel like a grown-up. I feel my responsibilities. I feel the weight of them. I know when I have lived up to my own ideals for how I want to be in the world and treat others around me, and when I haven’t, I feel it. I feel tired in this way that I definitely did not when I was younger.

And I’m talking about Mary here on the radio right now because, frankly, it’s hard for me to think or talk about anything else this week, but also because this week’s theme about asking advice from a grown-up. When you get to a certain age, you realize each grown-up is good for advice but on certain subjects and not on other subjects, and you have to be picky and choose the right grown-up for the right subjects. And then, I think I’m learning this week, when you get to a certain age, there aren’t many grown-ups older than you to ask advice from. The ones you love die off.

And then– and this is a total unforeseen pisser– you miss their crappy, bad advice. You really miss it. Because even the worst advice from a friend comes with a second message. And that’s just I got your back. Mary gave me some really useless marriage advice, and I gave her completely unwanted and unheeded advice about her cousin’s non-existent bedbugs. And we each ignored the other’s advice. But we did heed the other message. She had my back. I had hers. Which in the end, of course, was more important, anyway.