My Aunt Mary Lou died about a month ago. She was 69 years old, far too young. Today was her memorial service, in London.
I could of course write ten pages about her and her life. If you knew her, you don’t need me to tell you about her artistic brilliance, her bravery, her finding joy when many would not have, her love of family, and the incredibly positive impact she had on her community. I could talk for hours about how she raised two wonderful daughters, how she was a gay woman and an LGBTQ advocate long before that was a comfortable thing to be, how she had more friends than I have cells in my body. If you knew her you know all those things and if you don’t I could not do her justice and you wouldn’t believe me if I could. I can say it was the best memorial service I’ve ever seen because the place was packed beyond capacity with people who loved her, and they loved her ferociously.
So I’ll tell you a story about her.
About 34, 35 years ago, I was dispatched by train to visit her for four or five days. You could do that with kids back then, I guess. So I thought this delightful, since I correctly assumed she would spoil me and I was right. We had a great time. We played a lot of Yahtzee, with her usually winning because she understood the odds better than I did.
One thing she decided we would do that I did NOT like the idea of was go to a play. The play was “You Can’t Take It With You,” and the idea struck me as impossibly boring. I was 11 or 12 and all my favourite entertainment was violent cartoons and Star Wars. My previous exposure to live theatre, such as it had been, was when my mother took me to see Mr. Dressup when I was four, and I started yelling “WHERE ARE CASEY AND FINNEGAN?” and the other kids started yelling too and he had to apologize. Poor man. My parents wisely avoided live theatre after that.
But we went, and I was amazed. Dazzled. To me, London’s Grand Theatre was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen; I’d never been anywhere like it. The sumptuous class of a real theatre was something I’d never before seen. The anticipation was electric. When the performers came out and delivered what was, to my eyes, as remarkable a performance of art as I had ever witnessed, I was transfixed. It was to this day the single most positive difference between my expectation of an event and the actual event I’ve ever had. For days, I could talk of nothing else.
From then on live performance fascinated me. I was never all that good at it myself, but I loved it. When we began studying Shakespeare, I understood. I knew it was not words on a page, that it was something people were supposed to do live, right in front of you. I began to get into drama. Eventually I tried my hand at standup comedy, many years later, and yes, my Aunt Mary Lou came and saw some of my sets.
That was what she did to people. She made them see new things, be it through her amazing art, or her personality, or her guidance. She shone a light into me so I could feel something new and made me a better person.
Six weeks ago, when word came that she did not have much time left, I drove to London to say goodbye. The hospital was big and my brain is small, and I was swiftly lost, wandering the halls. I finally got directions and walked to the correct elevators, and as I did, there on the wall were a few old bills for productions at the Grand Theatre.
The one right in the middle was for that production of “You Can’t Take It With You.” The exact same production Aunt Mary Lou had taken me to all those years before. I could remember the playbill. I was as transfixed by that one in a million coincidence as I had been by the play all those years ago.
That’s who she was. A light.
I did not stay in touch with her enough. That is in large part because I suck at that, but we could all do better. I’m lazy when it comes to keeping those connections going. Life’s busy, I know, but call someone you haven’t in awhile this week, won’t you?