I grew up in a house with my parents and my younger sister.  But the truth is that I also grew up next door, at my neighbors’ house.  Bill and Mary Ann were pretty much my second parents.  They were great neighbors and friends of my parents, and they did not have children of their own.  They gladly accepted my sister and me as their own.  Tyra and I went from house to house pretty freely during the day, except during mealtimes.  My mom was very strict about us not inviting ourselves to lunch or dinner.  Mary Ann invited us often, but we were told to head back home as soon as she started cooking, so we were not imposing.  I can still hear her telling us that repeatedly.

I had a special bond with Mary Ann.  It is one I cannot quite put into words.  She came into my life when I was very young.  She greatly influenced who I became as a person.  I was a very girly girl, even when I was very little.  I liked to dress up.  I liked to bake.  I liked to shop.  My mom would rather have waded in creeks and caught crawdads.  She really wasn’t quite sure what to do with the likes of me.  When Mary Ann took me shopping or baked cookies with me, I know my mom must have felt a huge sense of relief.  I think Bill enjoyed it, too.  Everything that Mary Ann did with me was one thing that he got out of doing.  It was really a win-win for everyone involved.

Cooking and baking are some of the first things I remember doing with Mary Ann.  My mom cooked.  She really didn’t like it.  And she really did not want anyone else in the kitchen with her making the process  any more time consuming or any messier.  Mary Ann actually enjoyed cooking.  This was all new to me.  She canned vegetables.  She picked berries and put them away in the freezer.  I started going with her to berry patches and farmers’ markets.  I learned that picking strawberries is okay, but picking blueberries is not.  Blueberries are ripe when it is 100 degrees outside with 95% humidity.  They grow in giant bushes that you have to practically crawl into to get these tiny berries.  You pick for 5 hours to fill a quart-size bucket.  (Turns out that I have some of my mom’s tendencies about certain things.  Blueberry picking is one of them.)  We made all kinds of cookies and fudge at Christmas.  She started about a month before Christmas and we would bake and freeze different goodies.  I still do that today.  I have done it every year since I started doing it with her.  She also made a lot of food “from scratch.”  My mom was a firm believer in allowing the store to prepare foods for you.  She did transfer the prepared food into a bowl from home.  Mary Ann showed me how to make all kinds of homemade dishes.  And she let me help wash all the dishes, too.

Mary Ann always had some sort of home project going on that I was able to help with.  I learned how to wallpaper, sand, and paint.  We also took down a lot of wallpaper.  She had a sewing machine and was very talented at making curtains, pillows, and all kinds of things.  We decorated a lot and went to stores looking for fabric and accessories.  She also was a very thorough house cleaner.  She got into every nook and cranny when she cleaned.  She used a toothbrush and got on her hands and knees and scrubbed.  Her house was immaculate.  I have emulated her house cleaning techniques.  I scrub and clean every tiny bit of house.  She would be impressed.  I often think about her as I am doing my weekly cleaning.

Mary Ann was very crafty.  She quilted, knitted, croched, cross-stitched, and embroidered.  She was a very good teacher.  She taught me to embroider and cross-stitch.  I did those for years.  She attempted to teach me to crochet.  I was a lost cause.  It was too much counting for me.  I kept forgetting where I was.  I would have to go back.  None of these hand-crafts was the least bit relaxing for me.  She could sit there and whip out a baby bonnet while we watched a movie.  She never even looked down!  I honestly wanted to thrown my yarn ball and everything else across the room and stomp on it.  That is not relaxing.  I don’t do any of it anymore.  Mary Ann said she liked to keep her hands busy while she watched TV.  I do not have that problem.  I use my hands to pet my cat.

Most weekends, Mary Ann and I would go to see a movie or a play.  We preferred plays or musicals when we could find them locally.  I know for a fact that Bill was very happy that I had taken his place as Mary Ann’s theater companion.  I know this because he told me every single time I went with Mary Ann to the theater.  We would see anything that was offered- comedy, drama, didn’t matter.  I can’t even count how many plays and musicals we saw over the years.  Some were wonderful some were quite bad.  It didn’t really matter to us.  We were just glad to go.

Along those cultural lines, we took many family vacations with my parents and Bill and Mary Ann.  Mary Ann and I would usually sneak in a few museums or historic home tours in whatever city we visited.  No one else had much interest in going with us, but we always had the best time.

One of my biggest facinations with Mary Ann was that she was one of thirteen children.  My family was quite small.  I didn’t have very many cousins.  My family gatherings were always small.  The very thought of twelve brothers and sisters was just unimaginable to me.  And not only that, but they were all married with children on their own.  Some even had grandchildren!  There were so many of them!  I sometimes went with Mary Ann when she met up with four or so sisters.  The way they interacted was just mesmerizing to me.  The age difference between them was vast, yet they were very close.  It kind of felt like being on a modern day version of “The Waltons.”  There were always babies and toddlers.  And it was always so loud.  So loud.  My house was always quiet.  Mary Ann’s relatives were loud and children were running everywhere.  I had never seen anything like it.  I thought I would probably grow up and have thirteen children so my house could be like that.  (Another of my mom’s tendencies came out as I aged.  I like quiet.  And two children was plenty.)

My favorite memories of Bill and Mary Ann are from Christmas.  Mary Ann loved Christmas.  She always had a real tree, and I always helped to decorate it.  She had boxes full of decorations that were stored in the attic.  Bill had to climb up the ladder into the attic and retrieve all of the boxes.  This was not his favorite task.  The older he got, the less he liked it.  His other job was to put the tree in the stand.  He and Mary Ann had a different definition of “straight” when it came to trees.  To Mary Ann, straight meant that the tree was completely vertical.  To Bill, straight meant that the tree was upright-ish and could be somewhat supported by a wall, if needed.  This always led to at least an hour of good fun.  Sometimes that only thing that was accomplished the first night of decorating was getting the tree in the stand.  After the tree was in the stand, it was time to test the lights.  Mary Ann had what must have been the first strands of lights ever manufactured.  They took gigantic colored bulbs.  We would lay them out and test them, so that we could replace the burned out bulbs.  These strands were so old that they did not connect.  Each strand had to be plugged in separately.  This took a master’s degree in engineering to figure out when placing them on the tree.  This was another of Bill’s jobs.  He did not have a master’s degree in engineering.  Sometimes we had to place the strands on the tree three of four times before we could actually get them all plugged in and working.  Then one year Mary Ann decided that she would also like to add some small white lights to the mix.  So after the big, colored strands went on, we had to string around white lights.  That was usually another whole evening.  (The Christmas tree process took about a week.)  Next came the hand-knitted popcorn garland that she put on.  Ornaments came after that.  The ornaments were my favorite part.  She had a story for every ornament on the tree.  I knew all of the stories, too.  But we still told them every year.  I took on that tradition, too.  I have a story for every ornament on my tree.  The last to go on was the angel.  I am not sure why it went on last, but it did.  Bill would get a step ladder and lean over the big tree to place the angel on top.  Many is the year that we were certain he would just plummet right into the tree we had spent four days decorating.  He never did.  But he never did get the angel straight, either.  The angel always was slightly askew on top of the tree, as if she had come in hot and landed fast.  It was perfect.

There are things that Mary Ann said to me that I think about all the time…

“Get plain white dishes.  Then you can change your placemats and napkins with the seasons more easily.”  Best advice ever.

“Buy nice clothes when you’re young.  When you’re old and can really afford them you won’t look good in them anymore.”  I am assuming that “young” meant less than 90, right?

“Don’t wear cheap shoes with a nice dress.”  Really.  This is true.

I would not be who I am today without Bill and Mary Ann.  They are both gone now. They did live to see both of my children born.  Bill even dressed up as Santa for Christmas when Matthew was little.  I was blessed to have them as my second set of parents, right next door.


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