A THOUSAND TINY STEPS

My Summers With ML

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Maggie and I in 1981. ML right around age 100.
Maggie and I in 1981. ML right around age 100.

Time is funny.

Not funny haha, rather, funny quirky.

On the inside I feel the same as I have always felt when it comes to how I feel inside my skin. When I picture myself, I look like I did in my thirties. Aging for sure, but thin. My posture is good. My skin smooth. Although I have always felt “thick in the middle” my tummy is flat in my mind. Then along comes a store window or a mirror and I am snapped into current time. 

Sixty-year-old Barb is no thirty-year-old skinny person.

At age 60 I feel old. Like I am entering the end of my life time. And compared to thirty-year-old Barb, perhaps I am. I am starting to lose friends to age related illness. Most of my friends have lost one or both parents. Teachers and coaches are slowly moving on to the spiritual realm. Of course, I feel old. Kenny is now the age his parents were when we met. We are becoming the next generation.

And then there is Mary Lou Sayer.

ML as I and so many others called her died last week. She was 103. When I met her, I was 18. She was 61. Essentially my age. The summer of 1981 feels like a lifetime ago. And it was, really. Forty-three years is a long time. The forties are the decade of “becoming old”. If you were born in 1981 then it was your life time ago that I graduated from high school and met ML.

She wanted two boys to work as farm hands.

My friend Maggie and I decided that we would apply. My guidance counselor Judy Burnham suggested it. We told ML that “we can do anything a boy can do”. She put us to the test all summer. We dug holes, we chopped wood and stacked it. We built a stone wall. We pulled boulders from the earth with chains. 

We made $3 an hour cash. 

What we really did was spend 40 hours a week learning and growing with an amazing woman. ML represented all that was good in feminism. Not a man hater of any sorts, rather she was a lover of women. She saw people as people. She judged on what you did and not who you were. While much of feminism in 1981 centered around “being the same as men”, ML was the master of taking gender out of places it did not matter and valuing it where it belonged. Being equal did not mean being the same.

I seldom saw ML throughout my adult life.

Life gets busy, and it did for her and for me. We “saw” each other though. We are both public people. We put ourselves out there. We stood up for ourselves and others. We also knew a lot of the same people so her name would come up in my conversations and mine in hers. We ran into one another a few times. There was always a smile and a hug. A time to catch up. A promise to get together. 

The last time I saw her was four years ago. 

Her great grand daughter was a student of mine at a charter school I was managing. In looking for her phone number I saw Mary Lou was listed as a contact. She was 99 years old at that time. After schools closed for covid and we were all spending time at home, her mother brought ML for a driveway visit. 

As old as she was, she looked remarkably the same.

We smiled, we laughed. We air hugged. We talked. We cried happy tears, (well, I did anyway) and as usual made plans to have another visit (that we never had). It was a highlight of that spring. ML has been SUCH a driving force for me in times of challenge. She was a no-nonsense kind of gal. She epitomized “just do it” long before Nike took on that phrase.

As I wrapped up my third summer working for (with) her we spent much time talking as we did working. She was a wealth of information. She did not look at age as a reason to say yes or no to anything. She started a blueberry farm at age 61! She traveled. She read. She advocated for women. She stayed connected and vital. 

She drove and lived independently into her 100th year.

She is on the other side now. As Molly would say, “she has all of the answers”. I hope she is happy. I hope the answers are to her liking. I hope she sees (and takes a modicum of credit for) all of the lives that she touched and made better. She is, in so many ways, a legend. And yet, she is also just ML.

Carry on ML, I’ll see you in 43 years.

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