Mary Dell Grey, my good friend of nearly forty years, passed away last month. I was honored when her family asked me, along with family and several other close friends, to speak at her service.
It was no ordinary gathering.
Obviously there were tears and sadness as we talked about our friend, but what I will remember most is the laughter. I’ve never heard such laughter at a funeral service.
Mary Dell wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Each of us who spoke mentioned her constant smiles and her love of laughter. She laughed at herself most of all. We each had a story to tell, a funny story or two, to illustrate just how often she laughed and made others laugh.
“Always laugh at yourself!” she’d say.
Below is something I posted close to three years ago about a day Mary Dell and I spent working in her garden. We laughed when it happened, we laughed about it later, and we’d call each other on the phone just to re-laugh again.
Mary Dell encouraged me to blog and this was one of her favorite posts. It reminded her of some fun days, she said, and she enjoyed going back to laugh at herself.
Always laugh at yourself!
Asp Not – originally posted July, 2013
It was hot the morning Mary Dell and I began working in her cottage garden and in spite of the heat we eagerly launched into our efforts. While I pruned, watered, or weeded the winding walkway, Mary Dell began the work she did best. She talked to each plant, wished it well, and commented on its beauty. She even got around to deadheading a day lily, looking quite stylish wearing the latest in sun hats and shades.
“Oh bless.” Mary Dell said as she attempted to lift a shovel. Various yard tools were sometimes left scattered throughout the garden and we gathered them to return them to the shed. “Why, I can’t even lift this thing! Would you mind carrying it?”Mary Dell asked.
“All of these tools.” she sighed. “And why on earth would I have a splitting maul? Are you aware, it must weigh ten pounds! I couldn’t lift that thing either and I think it’s still over there by the bluebirds.” she said as she waved in a general direction with freshly manicured nails.
Mary Dell’s respect for nature and her love of gardens, combined with her impeccable sense of style and fashion, often prompted her to ask, “What outfit does one wear as one gardens?” She intensely appreciated every bloom in her garden and it was always entertaining to help her with the upkeep. Besides, there was also the anticipation of a lunch of her famous macaroni salad, cold and delicious.
In addition to her fondness for gardens, Mary Dell was an animal lover. She was pleased by the number of birds and other animals seen regularly on her land and was most proud of the nesting bluebirds which had taken up residence in the birdhouse she put up just for them, attached to the sturdiest of poles and set in concrete. Yes, she loved all kinds of wildlife. “Well, just the kind that have legs.” she’d say. She loathed snakes.
We worked all morning but by afternoon the heat was too much. As I wiped gritty sweat from my face, Mary Dell pondered which style of footwear would be most appropriate for her upcoming garden party. We sat in the shade of a thickly hanging wisteria drinking iced tea and looking over the garden, commenting on everything from aster to zinnia.
Mary Dell sipped her tea, “What a productive day and thank heavens we didn’t come across any of those vile beasts!”
“Beasts?” I wondered if she’d spent too much time in the sun. “What beasts?” I asked again.
Lest any appear if the word were mentioned too loudly, Mary Dell leaned forward and whispered, “Snakes“.
“Aw, there’s nothing wrong with snakes.” I said, defending them to get a rise out of her since I knew she hated them. “They’re here for a reason. They have a purpose.” I continued.
“Shoes.” Mary Dell said as a noise from the bluebirds caused us to turn and see them flitting around the birdhouse. “Maybe snakes are good for shoes, but I could never wear them!” she insisted. I began to give Mary Dell a lecture on snakes’ importance to the environment, reminding her that as a lover of wildlife she should learn to respect them. She only halfway listened because the bluebirds continued their noisy fuss.
I looked towards the bluebird house where there was more than the usual amount of activity. Loud calls and chirps came from the bluebird pair that had been nesting there. Leaning back in my chair I took a gulp of tea. “Remember the time I was raking leaves and that little snake tried to crawl into my shoe?” I asked. “I had to actually reach down and pull it out by the tail, remember?”
Mary Dell clutched her breast. “Oh save us all, yes I remember that.” She said as she dabbed her forehead with a napkin, looking faint. I laughed and asked what she would have done had that happened to her. “Well,” she responded seriously, “I would have immediately phoned my realtor and sold the place by day’s end!”
Looking around at the work we’d just finished I told Mary Dell I’d secretly prayed we’d see a snake as we weeded. I chuckled when she said the mere notion was about to give her a migraine. We poured ourselves more tea and noticed the bluebirds still making quite a racket. Not only the nesting pair, but several birds of all kinds were now diving madly at the birdhouse.
“Something’s going on.” I said as we stood to inspect the commotion. We meandered down the garden path towards the birdhouse and the mixed flock of angry birds flew only a short distance away as we approached. They continued their constant fuss as they hopped from branch to branch in a nearby tree.
I walked up to the birdhouse to get a better look when the head of a very large black snake popped out of the opening, then quickly withdrew. My prayer had been answered.
“It’s just a snake.” I said to Mary Dell as casually as I could without laughing, anticipating her reaction.
“A what?” she screamed as both hands flew to her throat. “Oh come on! It’s not, is it?” she asked as she looked back and forth between me and the birdhouse, hoping for a sign that I was joking. In slow motion, Mary Dell crouched and tiptoed towards the birdhouse. As she did, the large snake lifted its head and held a stare through the opening in the birdhouse, looking right at her.
“Lord have mercy!” Mary Dell exclaimed, hopping off the ground a bit as she waved her hands wildly in the air. “I can see the face of the heinous creature!” She turned on her heels, which were clad in the latest summer sandal fashion, and headed towards the house.
“Where are you going?” I asked between laughs.
“To get my gun!” she responded, as if there were any need to ask.
“Wait, wait, wait.” I said. “Let’s not kill it.”
“Why on earth not?” she asked as she crept back to the birdhouse.
“It’s probably already eaten the eggs.” I said. “So let me get it out and take it away somewhere.” I knew if it came out on its own Mary Dell would show it the business end of her revolver. And a very stylish revolver it was sure to be.
Amazingly, Mary Dell agreed to help. The plan was to hold a bag under the birdhouse, simply flip the latch that held the front of the birdhouse shut, the front would then open, and the snake would fall into the bag.
The plan began well enough, but the longer we took, the more the frightened snake poked its head from the birdhouse. Each time it did, Mary Dell screamed and the snake retreated. I couldn’t stop laughing at their dance, but with each appearance of the snake’s head it became harder and harder to keep Mary Dell from going for her gun.
Stepping backwards to pick up the bag for the snake I tripped over the splitting maul we had yet to put away. I fell against the post supporting the birdhouse. The startled snake poked through the hole again, but this time about a foot of its body came out and hung suspended in air for a few seconds as it looked at us. I was certain I heard several cats being slaughtered simultaneously when I realized it was only Mary Dell screaming again. She had seen the length of snake pour from the hole, tongue flicking, shining eyes staring at us. The snake retreated again but it was too much for Mary Dell.
In as fluid a motion as you could imagine Mary Dell bent down and picked up that ten pound splitting maul. This tiny woman, clad stylishly in fashionable summer wear, charged past me. She raised the splitting maul completely over her head, screamed the cry of the insane, and smashed it into the birdhouse. In an instant, the birdhouse and post came out of the ground, complete with concrete still caked around the base. It fell with a thud. The birdhouse was cracked in several places and I could see the snake moving on the inside, still alive, but unable to get out. This was even better, I thought.
“Mary Dell, since the birdhouse is on the ground now, you hold the bag open with one shovel while I use the other shovel to slide the birdhouse into it.” I said quickly.
“You don’t mean it.” she said with a crazed look, eyes darting.
“It’s ok. It can’t get out of the birdhouse.” I said trying to convince Mary Dell, although I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.
“Oh yes it can get out!”, Mary Dell said as she headed to the house with an itchy trigger finger.
“Let’s just try one more time.” I said. Mary Dell reluctantly returned and gingerly picked up a shovel. “Go ahead.” I said. “Just hold the bag open while I push the birdhouse inside.” Mary Dell leaned down, inches away from the birdhouse, and slowly started to open the bag. “That’s good.” I said. “Don’t worry. The snake won’t come out.”
It came out.
The snake didn’t just exit the birdhouse, it shot half its body length from the birdhouse directly towards Mary Dell. Just as quickly though, it retreated back into the broken birdhouse.
What I heard next was metal hitting the ground as the shovel Mary Dell had held fell back to earth. Mary Dell didn’t scream and run to the house, she screamed the entire way to the house. I never actually saw her. I only saw bushes move in the wake of her running past, a sun hat on the walkway and a summer sandal lodged in the yarrow. I returned to the snake and took only seconds to slide the birdhouse into the bag. Closing the bag tightly, I headed to the house. Luckily, Mary Dell had regained some composure and agreed to talk to me through the glass of the closed (and locked) storm door.
“Where is a good place to take the snake?” I asked, stifling a laugh. “I want to take it someplace where it won’t find its way back to scare you again.” I hoped that would be incentive enough for her to help me but I knew there were probably hundreds more in the woods just like the one I had in the bag.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Mary Dell suddenly looked totally at ease, a smile came over her face, and she stepped outside with me and the snake.
“Actually, I just thought of a grand place.” she said pleasantly. “Turn right on the main road, go two miles, turn right at the church, take the very next left, and go to the end of the road. It’s a fabulous place for a snake. Just turn it loose there.”
How great, I thought. My lecture on the importance of snakes had hit home! She decided to help! Feeling proud of myself I got in the car, snake in the bag, and followed Mary Dell’s directions. The location did seem good and “snaky” and with only one house in that area the snake should stay out of trouble. I pulled over, emptied the bag onto the edge of a field, and watched the somewhat dazed snake slither off on its own.
When I got back to Mary Dell’s she had collected her wits, as well as her hat and sandal, and looked suspiciously pleased with herself as she set out plates and glasses for the lunch we were late having. “See?” I said, eager to hear Mary Dell admit that I’d convinced her of the value of snakes. “All of that fear yet you ultimately came around to my side and helped out the snake.”
“Oh no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all.” she said, taking a casual sip of tea. “You see, Mr. Wilson lives in the house at the end of the road where you took that hideous serpent. He has chickens and he hates snakes. He’ll kill it on sight. I called ahead to let him know he was about to have company.”
“Macaroni salad?” she asked, as she adjusted her sun hat and sat down smiling.
Stuart M. Perkins