28th December, 2016
So I’m lazy today and lounging on my couch scrolling through estate sale listings – it’s Saturday. There’s several going on when I see what catapults me off the couch in shock – It’s Mary Jo’s address!!!??? I scream “I KNOW HER!” Dear God, did she die? Was she put in a home? Guilt and panic are the instant sensations of the day, the week, the month, and the lesson will be with me forever.
I threw yesterdays clothes on as fast as I could and dart over to her house. I am confronted with a sea of people with my usual “make-a- penny scream” mentality of estate sale’ing. I have to find out what happened to her? They’re taking names for procession of entry. I go up to the Security man at the front porch to see what he can tell me – he has no details. I’m there with my out of town brother who can’t make heads or tails of my reaction but I am quite beside myself – I am Mary Jo’s friend!
You see, Mary Jo lived on my street and is the sweetest woman you’ll ever meet. I knew she was up there in age but positively full of life and joy. In my insanely busy work existence, I saw her in transit from work and always stopped to catch up if I saw her in her driveway. She would talk about the art class she taught and how she loved it and invited me to attend and browse the class. You see, I adore art – we had that in common. I was an artist in my younger years so she and I enjoyed a common thread. I want you to remember what I’m writing here as it relates to an F on my personal report card later.
I’ve been in Mary Jo’s house several times but just to check in on her, pass the time, and see if she needed anything. I first met her during early 2008’s massive ice storm. She was one of so many elderly people in my neighborhood living alone and I coordinated the movement of the to their in-the-neighborhood friends who had power. Those who wouldn’t leave their non-powered houses, I brought food and coffee. Since I left my name, address, and phone number with them all so they could tell their families who was working with them, Mary Jo was one of several who also took my invitation to use my storm shelter during inclement tornado weather. Ironically, it turns out she had her own storm shelter all along. That goes to show people just want to have a conversation and enjoy the company of a neighbor. She’s been to my house several times where I showed her my artwork and art I have. She clearly loved art too and once again explained she taught art at the local community college and invited me to her class. I said I’d go but it is dependent on my work demands. I never made it to that tour but boy did I work myself to poor health. In hind site, not taking her up on touring that class is a huge life-time regret for me. Such a small thing I could’ve done to be a vessel to let her show me her passion. Fast forward to that estate sale – my name is finally called.
The house is full and I didn’t catch what I saw until the end of round 1 – her house is the same as when I visited her – everything is still there?! It felt like I was invading her privacy and it made me feel very uncomfortable and sad. I avoid the crowd and bank right to the 1st door on the right and am instantly floored! I have never explored her house, I just sat with her in her living room and passed the time. The room I am now in is her art room – her paintings, her drawings, her instructional and inspirational books…wow! More importantly, it’s the beginnings of her Masterpieces.
I am immediately surrounded with her talented works, her broad skill sets, and certainly, that I have failed to learn about her. I am asking the art room tenet (estate sale male worker), if he knew if she passed away or got moved to a retirement home – he too had no info. It was not the first thing I did in that room. To the right, on the floor is a stack of her art. I dove down to the most beautiful charcoal drawing…it’s light shown down on a city street glaring to a man’s little vendor’s cart. The cart’s white and contrasting red striped umbrella is the point of the sun’s accent in the hazy-day drab of a city street. It’s in my hands and I can’t believe the perfection I’m looking at. I went back to the house to get the charcoal she presumably used to draw it. I am learning more about her looking at her work.
I set that picture aside on the sold table so I can continue my quest to find out more about what happened to her. My brother guarded that table as he too saw the extraordinary beauty in the artists rendering. In fact, he stopped someone from stealing that picture – a common problem with estate sales and why security is needed at them. The security guard stopped a few “accidental” lifting of things off the sold table. I found out later that the staff employees were equally taken aback by her artwork and acquired her pieces too. This is a testament to her unsung talents. My discussions with several of the people at the sale who knew her was so sad, Mary Jo did pass away. I was and am so crushed. She passed away at 90 years old. Even more startling was what I found out in my Internet searching that night – she passed away a year and a half ago? How could I not know that? It was a time stamp for me and a gage in how long I’ve not been well. I then realized that I changed my phone number around the same time as her passing – she couldn’t have had my new number!
How much loneliness and ailing must she have been going through and without being able to call on me? This is the “F” failing grade I was referring to above. All of us are drops that make up the bucket of water – we’re each ingredients to a life experienced. I knew Mary Jo had a son, but found out she actually had two? Again, my failing for not knowing more about her and giving her my time. I couldn’t wrap my head around how he could sell his mother’s art, it was beyond me. I eventually made it upstairs and absolutely lost it – full on uncontrollable tears. There was a beautiful, joyous picture of her holding her son as an infant. I was affected deeply that it would even be for sale and didn’t understand how these things, her precious things could be for sale? I proceeded to her bedroom and felt honored to see what she saw when she went to bed. There was a stunning portrait of a lady in a draped towel presumably fresh from a bath, and a landscape painting that took my breath away – it hung about her headboard. I perceived her pride in these painting which explained their placement to be enjoyed by their creator. I had to have that which she saw last every night. At some point, I found out there was some conflict in the family. It turns out one brother bought out the other brother out and sold everything. I then found another similar picture of her holding the second son, I bought that one too. My mission had completely changed.
I knew giving Mary Jo her day in the sun was absolutely paramount. Just because you’re unpublished and not in the lime light doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be recognized for your talents and brought into the light to be appreciated. There were numerous people moved by and buying her art too. I preserved as much of her art as I could afford to be able to show the spectrum of her work. I gathered some family pictures and a pictorial collage of herself for a snapshot of her legacy. I went back five times and gathered a bouquet of things to respect the artist: numerous pieces of her artwork demonstrating her varied capable skills (oil paintings, charcoal works, portraits…etc.) I bought her wooden suitcase she used as an easel for her work, her charcoal, a couple of books I thought she clearly referred to in her landscape paintings (which were done to perfection), a famous artist book, her wooden “Mary” engraved jewelry box, a wooden bowl with age of use…etc. The family pictures I gathered were intentional as well. I wanted to be able to facilitate any healing in the family and begin a new joy of their mother. I too am the recipient of a healing of my family from the kind insightful words of a good man (Henry Adams). Here I am with my healed relationship brother at this estate sale and I knew God brought me here – I’m certain now.
I left my name with the estate sale people asking them to have the son to call me – he did not. I called back to remind them I would work with the community college to show her work and allow her actual students that were inspired by her to obtain her works at no cost benefit to me. There are pieces I will keep as a lover of art and of her work. It’s her beautiful pieces of art I’m trying to preserve for the students as well as family items recoverable through their healing. I have learned more of who she was during this experience than I knew of her alive. That’s a lesson for me and hopefully of use to the readers. That neighbor next door or down the street – perhaps you never see them, or they never open their blinds, or that you wave to them as you drive by in your busy day. They’re a complete person and you might hold their bucket’s missing drop of water. They’re often in need of company, to just talk, or show who they are or were. They’re a drop in your bucket and make us complete too.
I can tell you this, everything Mary Jo drew is alive! You can smell the salty water, hear the windblown rustle of the leaves, engage with the eyes of her portraits, hear the streams as they pass in her landscapes, experience the cold dreariness of a sailors gloomy dock, and relish the abstract beauty of her charcoal depictions. Her work is so alive and must be seen and appreciated. I am now her biggest fan and only wish I could have shown her the attention she and her artwork deserves. Never shade a blooming sun thirsty flower. Mary Jo was a woman of small stature, hair entwined in a bun. She was always smiling, always had kind words, and was an example for people like me who still need to pick up those traits. I recall seeing her little car go to and from and remember her being more active than I. My world was work work work work, mom assignments sprinkled with the joy of art. She is definitely one to use as an example. I found out from her obituary she was very well educated. She earned a BS in zoology, one course away from earning a Masters in chemistry. Mary Jo was married for 40 years and had several jobs of service including helping her husband’s dental practice and being a pediatric technician. She was active in her church and a wonderful person to converse with and know. I miss her very much and will brag about her forever.
You may have noticed that I am not using her last name – it’s intentional. The release of that is up to her family. You may also have noticed I am underlining her name – that too is intentional to show respect for both her name and how she signed her drawings. I would love to see all her work as many left her house before I could see them. I hope you all enjoy the beauty of her hidden talents and take something away from my drop in the bucket neighborly true story. Mary Jo was my neighbor, she was an exceptional artist and human being, and I miss her. Let’s please be neighbors and fill those buckets.
Oklahoma County, OK