At least once in a lifetime — if we’re fortunate — someone appears in our life who we realize at some point served as a soft, quiet influence. Often this realization doesn’t come until much later, after they have gone from our life and it’s too late to thank them.
For me, Mary Lou exemplified that quiet influence.
I never knew Mary Lou’s last name until just a few years ago — I don’t think much of anybody in our family did. And the person who told me wasn’t one hundred percent positive, at that. The story goes that my Uncle Frank picked her up one day somewhere in West Tampa (probably sometime in the 1930’s when she was supposedly about 14 or so), brought her to work for him and my great-aunt until she finally retired sometime in her mid- to late-sixties. Some of the adults in the family knew a bit about Mary Lou’s personal life, but I never really did. She was just always there from as early as I can remember, working for my Aunt Nell, at whose house in Hyde Park I would often spend the day as a toddler when both my parents were working. She was a wonderful, solid woman who watched over me like a hawk and was always ready to serve me a “Co-cola” out of one of those little 6-1/2 oz glass bottles (the best Cokes ever) that Aunt Nell constantly had on hand in one of those wooden Coke crates out on the closed-in back porch. Aunt Nell and Uncle Frank lived right on the train track that ran through what’s now known as “South Tampa”, and when Mary Lou and I heard the train approaching on the tracks that ran behind the house, she would grab my hand and run me out to the backyard to watch it go by, and then she’d laugh as I giggled and waved at the caboose as it brought up the rear of the train heading on down the tracks to some unknown destination. I think that was always my biggest thrill of the day. I can still see the two of us standing out there as close to the tracks as we dared get and stay safe, feeling the ground rumble under my feet. I also still see Mary Lou sitting on the sofa in the living room during one of her rare breaks throughout the day, softly spitting her dipped snuff into that handy little Campbell’s soup can she always kept close by.
I’m sure Mary Lou provided me with a few words of wisdom over the years, as well . . .
. . . along with a good pop on the behind when needed. I don’t remember anything specific, and all these many years later I can barely recall what her voice sounded like, although I clearly remember she was missing a few teeth, so her “s’s” weren’t real clear. Although most of the extended family probably never realized it, I have no doubt Mary Lou served as a quiet influence on all of us. She was far more than my aunt’s housekeeper. She was an integral part of the family — always there at family gatherings, weddings, anniversary and birthday parties, and funerals. In fact, I think the last time I saw Mary Lou was at a family funeral. She had retired, and it was obvious both her physical health and her memory were failing. But she was there. It was probably the last time any of the family ever saw her. It wasn’t long after that I sadly came to realize that although everybody dearly loved her, it was more like one might love a family pet — always there and faithful, but always in a proper place in the background. It was the times, I guess. Not that that’s an excuse, but it was the sad reality.
The book and movie “The Help” really brought back a lot of bittersweet memories for me.
I related to Skeeter in such a powerfully personal way, and I wonder now what Mary Lou’s story would’ve been. How did she see those for whom she worked, helped raise and cared for through those many years. To me, she was this incredibly wonderful woman with whom I just loved spending time, watching her go about her day, drinking Co-colas with her, and standing hand in hand with while trains and cabooses went by. I wish I could sit next to her right now, put my arms around her and let her know just how much I always loved her, what an important role she played and what a lasting impression she made in my life.
It became obvious not too long ago that I’m not the only one for whom Mary Lou was an extremely special human being.
As far as I know, I’m the only person in my extended family who has the photo of Mary Lou I’ve shared at the top of this post. I found it a few years ago in an old suitcase of my parent’s memorabilia. Nobody seems to know where it was taken or where it came from, but it is one of my most valued possessions. I shared this rare photo with a cousin of mine who also grew up around her, and he literally broke down and cried. No words were needed in order to know what a powerful statement he had just made. There was a humble dignity and inner beauty about Mary Lou that I believe has helped shape the way I see people of all races and ethnicities and from all walks of life. I am sure she served as a quiet influence in helping me become someone who sees no one as any better or more valuable or more important — or less so — than anyone else. We all have a part to play in this thing we call life. We all are bound to have some kind of lasting effect on someone at sometime through the years, and most likely we will never realize it. It may be in how we live our personal life, the way we conduct our business, the way we interact with a total stranger. We simply never know the quiet influence we may have on another human being that will make a profound difference in their life. The question becomes whether the difference we make will be a positive or negative one. Here’s to living a life of gratitude, prosperity, abundance, genuine love and respect for all, and positive quiet influence.