I had an odd childhood. Most of it was after my thirties, so I’m still quite young, actually. Margaret Eddy, my birth mother was a school teacher who really didn’t know what you did with children if you didn’t have a desk between them and you. We figured that out before she and I came to major blows. I was an only child so she had no earlier practice. So my childhood with my mother consisted of lessons. Piano lessons. Poetry readings. Diagramming sentences. Homework. Odd histories. Writing. Art history. Musicals. Singing music from musicals. And a tendency to try to make money out of the very odd crafts I insisted on doing. She managed practicalities fairly well. I was fed and washed as cleanly as any child with a passion for mud pies can be.
But my other mother taught me the important things.
No, I wasn’t adopted. But I had a neighbor lady who took me in.
Mary Annis moved next store when I was eight. She lived in Mrs. Zilm’s crazy huge old house with four children, one who was my age. And she just folded me in.
Mary was the original lunatic fringe.It was like visiting OZ. In Mary’s house, people made messes. Out of art. They were late. They didn’t answer phones. Oddly enough they also didn’t care about food, because no one really cooked. I spent days tucked in making doll clothes, embroidering pillow cases, melting crayons, and making my real mother insane. It was perfect. Mary even had a cat who attacked my mother through the ferns when Margaret came to get me. It was wonderful!
An odd thing happened. As an adult, I know how adults just take their children’s friends wherever they’re going. But I had a taste for crafts and antiques her children didn’t share. We bonded over a million craft projects and piles of fabric. Somewhere she became more than my friend’s mom, and more than a neighbor. Words fail me. Mother comes close. Friend comes closer, but an adult’s friendship with a child is a different friendship. If I wanted mothering, God knows she was a much better at it than my mother. She was also my champion. She fought my mother for crucial things for me: art lessons, my first cat, space to create. Her fights with Margaret always made me want to head under the couch. She took them on clear eyed and gladly, and Margaret never had a chance. She made my childhood sane.
Why did she do that? I can only guess. She knew it was needful. And a woman who knows that the phone doesn’t need to be answered, also knows what really does.
Mary Shirley Annis
Mary was my friend past my childhood, all my life. I dedicated each of my books to her, for, in truth, they couldn’t have happened without her. My art wouldn’t have happened without her. Was she my friend? My mother? Words fail us often and they fail us here. I only know she lit my corner of the world and coaxed me out.
Mary Annis passed away on May 8th. For her, I’m sure it’s a graduation, a celebration, a feast of joy to be home. We’ll celebrate her life at a memorial this coming Saturday. I intend to celebrate her life every day, as I live surrounded by her love, working on the art she only understood, with odd children running in and out my door.
You’ll find Mary Annis’s tribute by her daughter Barbara Gail Simons here. There are notes from Betsy and Chuck, her other surviving children, as well.
You’ll find a loving blog of Mary’s life in Indianapolis written by her daughter Betsy Fladung here.
I wrote another blog about Mary called The Mentor Waltz. I hope you find other mothers everywhere, because, God knows, we need them.