In memoriam, Mary Souter

Her Royal Highness, Mary Souter

When I was sixteen, I ran away from home. The reasons why are complex, and mostly centered around my teen-aged angst, and undiagnosed depression. Suffice to say I wasn’t that easy to live around, and my own mother wasn’t that easy to live around either. What matters here is not why I ran away, but that I had a safe place to go. I spent that summer at the Souter house, sleeping in Clark’s bed as he was with his father up on some river dredging for gold. I had been to the Souter house often, I was good friends with their son Justin, but that summer was the time I got to really know Mary. Without complaint, or even a bat of her eye, she made a place for me in her house. I was always welcome. She made this clear. Not just with words, but with deeds. When I was at my lowest, she held out her hand to me. It’s the kind of debt one doesn’t forget.

Since that time Mary has been like a second mom to me. We shared inside jokes, argued politics, and she even told embarrassing stories about me. For instance, I used to call her and in my fake Posh accent ask to speak to the Queen. She would return the accent, playing the part of H.R.H. Mary with style. Even now I can hear the way she would clear her throat before putting on that voice. “Oh, hello. This is the Queen speaking….”

After both her sons moved from Clovis to LA (along with an adopted son) Mary, always the dutiful mother, packed her bags and followed. Practically every time I came over to visit Clark, or would see her at one of her son’s (or grandchildren’s) birthdays, Mary would look at me and in her sweet voice say, “You know there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask.” This would be immediately followed by something like, “If Bill Clinton is such a good president, then why is he so corrupt.” And off we’d go into yet a mother political discussion.

Mary was a cheerful and dedicated Republican. We used to joke that if the Devil himself ran on the Republican ticket she would vote for him (he did, and she did). Whenever this was she would smile and approve. If you dropped her in a room full of liberals, not a hard thing to find in southern California, Mary would smile and carry on, not at all phased by other’s beliefs. And yet never once can I recall her not liking a person because they held different political views from her own. The very idea would be revolting to her. In this day of FaceBook and people left and right unfriending over politics, Mary was a true original. She would find the whole anger thing absurd, and more than a little distasteful. Politics were for fun, but friends were serious business.

And practically every time we got into a discussion around strangers Mary would bring up the time she was my substitute teacher when I was in the 4th grade. This happened long before I met her son, and at a time when we lived on the other side of town. Each time she told this story, and I must have heard it once a year for the last 20 years, it gained more in the details, and was embellished each time with more fabrications. It got to the point that it was almost painful for me to listen to. Every time she told this story it embarrassed me. But once she started on it, there was no derailing her. Only now, that I can no longer be embarrassed by the story do I realize it was her way of making me feel a part of the family. After all, it’s practically an unwritten rule that every mom has to tell embarrassing stories about their kids. To her, I was just another son.

When it came time to purchase our home, we knew who to call. Mary the super agent came to our rescue time and time again. I remember telling her we wanted, “the ugliest house on the prettiest block.” The look she gave us was priceless. She’d never had anyone quite describe a real estate transaction that way. We were working under a very short time window, plus Teri was 9 months pregnant, yet she shouldered on with us as we looked at well over 60 houses. If you haven’t purchased a house in LA let me tell you, Some of the agents around here are real sharks. Mary managed to keep a smile on her face in the teeth of some real assholes. Not once did she complain, not once did she say a mean thing about the other agents. When the lady who owned the place we live in now suddenly ended up in the hospital, while we were in escrow, we instructed Mary to go and get her signature, even if she’s on death’s door. To her credit, Mary got us through, even as the selling agent dragged his feet.

Mary Souter was by far the best Toy finder in the universe. Several of the toys she purchased for Trevor lasted far longer than any other toy, from any other source. I remember a set of interlocking cups she bought for him that made bath time with a toddler so much easier. And a stuffed bunny she bought for him when he was around 3 still makes it into his bed every night.

So today we got to go to her memorial. She had a lot of friends and family that she touched, and everyone always had a kind word for Mary. She was that kind of person. Though she will be missed, we were blessed by her passing.

Pease be unto you dear Mary. Be well wherever you may go.

A chance meeting with a passing soul

His name was Christopher, and he was sitting on the sidewalk outside of Trader Joes. I was doing a grocery run because Teri was busy with something, and I got off work early. One of the first things I learned about Christopher was he was going to the hospital. He had a hurt wrist, so he said, had a few possible broken ribs, and sclerosis of the liver. The second thing I learn about Christopher, before I even learned his name, was he was going to die.

“They told me I have 61 days,” he said to me, “I’ve been counting. I still have 40 left.”

When I came back out of the store, both arms loaded with groceries, I stopped to give him some cash. We talked about riding the bus and a few other things. His companion, very much not a homeless man, was named Pedro. Pedro was the kind of guy who ended every sentence with Praise God, or Praise Jesus. I knew the type, hell, I’d been the type. He seems to care, and was apparently going to take Christopher to the hospital, so I didn’t complain, although why they hadn’t gone in the time I was shopping I don’t understand.

Christopher was 51, and looked pretty good. His beard was long, but clean and well trimmed. His eyes were that color of electric blue that are startlingly pure. They were arresting eyes. His hair was turning from blonde to grey, but he had less grey in it than I do. Had his clothes been slightly cleaner he could have passed for an eccentric, and not a homeless man. His wore bright blue tennis shoes on his feet. One lay on its side on the sidewalk, the leg coming up at a strange angle from the foot, like he was woking on turning his ankle further so bottom of his foot could bend in more. The pose was both comfortable and awkward. He didn’t smell much of urine.

We talked about God and such. Christopher didn’t realize the meaning of his name, and when I told him, then Pedro wanted to know right away if I was a Christian or not. Somehow I seem to always do this with born-agains, I pepper the conversation with enough knowledge to make them ask, and then get to tell them I’m no longer a believer. It’s a stupid compulsion on my part. It stems in part from my need to be smarter than everyone else, and also possibly as a way to signal to them that their firm belief is not all that firm. A few times I’ve able to simply ignore Christians, or mouth the “christianese” enough to not draw attention, but today I didn’t.

Pedro wanted to know why I walked away from the faith. They always do. There’s no good answer to that, as least one a christian will understand. Knowing all about the faith, but not being of it doesn’t compute. It’s not a thought that fits within the christian meme. He asked if I was turned off by the church, but the truth is it wasn’t just the church. It was the whole thing. The whole memeplex is a mess. Too self-referential, and offering almost zero room for ideas outside of a very narrow set of beliefs. To me its like trying to build a giant apartment complex in a tiny sandbox with carefully guarded borders. There’s no room. It just doesn’t fit.

In any case I wasn’t there to discuss religion, and I wasn’t the main event. Sooner or later the conversations going to come back to Christopher, he was a drunk, this is how it goes. So I kicked the conversation back to him, and let it run its course.

We talked about a few more things, but I had frozen groceries in my bag, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for a long conversation. I wished Christopher well, and that he’d find sobriety. Then I give a mini lecture on the sacredness of work, explained how Jesus thought work important enough to even quote the OT on the topic (one of the few times he did), and wished him the desire to work hard on his life. For Pedro I wished him nothing, but left him with a pleasant greeting. Like me, Pedro is one of the lucky ones. Finally I wished Christopher luck. He’s going to need it if he wants to live past Christmas.

Then I drove home and put away my groceries.

Here’s the thing. We all have the knowledge that death can come at any moment. This week we had this concept strongly reaffirmed by the horrible shooting in Las Vegas. But the human mind naturally elides thoughts of death. If you try to force someone to pay attention to their future date with the grim reaper it will just piss them off. But occasionally one can approach the idea of their looming demise from an oblique angle, and not have a negative reaction. Christopher is a reminder that we all will die soon. I don’t mention this so you’ll be ready to meet your maker, since I don’t believe in one, but to point out the value of death is life. Death is a reminder to be what you want, to be who you are. If you were given 61 days would you spend it so drunk that you could trip on the sidewalk and break some ribs, or would you do something that made your life count?

Now here’s the real question, why wait?