Stories with Mary

Mary has always been a story teller and a keeper of history. We want to share your stories with her and with the rest of her family. Please click here and share your favorite stories about our sweet Mary!

“Ponder the fact that God made you a gardener…” – Saint Catherine of Siena

By Delia Bryan

Mary’s front garden

As I came into my thirties and began to stay home more, gardening has become something that fuels my
soul. In the past few years of (successfully) keeping houseplants and tending my own garden, my mom
and I began comparing notes, sharing seeds and successes, and all around loving our gardens together.
However, this wasn’t always the case for me.
Growing up, tending to the garden seemed like such a chore. My mom would give me 10 cents for every
maple sapling I could find in the garden, but it never seemed worth it. Even our annual trip blueberry
picking at Spicer’s Orchard had me and another sister scoffing at the thought of berries until adulthood.
As an adult living on my own I began experimenting with houseplants to some gruesome endings. When
I moved home from Japan and to Detroit, I tried having houseplants again. Despite not being able to
keep a plant alive for long, I realized that I was actually pretty good at getting seeds started.
Simultaneously I started trying to sprout seeds from my food scraps — including mango, lemon,
avocado, and apple seeds— to some success! When my lease ran out and I was getting ready to leave
the country again I entrusted my apple and avocado seedlings to my mom (the others died), knowing
that with her magic green thumb, they might survive. Not only did they survive, they flourished. My
sweet mama in all her nurturing superpower breathed life into these tiny green beings, feeding them
water and nutrients, song and energy, helping them to grow into her garden.
My mom shared with me recently that her grandmother (Cullen) also kept houseplants and helped to
really pique my mom’s interest in them as a young adult, making this pastime an ancestral affair. What
better way to be close to those that have passed than to be close to the earth and nurturing to other

Mary’s Apple Tree

While we did lose Mr. Avocado last year (he had a good run!), Ms. Granny Smith Apple is still going
strong. After a couple of years of slowed growth in a garden spot close to the house, early this spring my
mom and I moved her to the middle of the yard where she almost immediately spread her branches and
to our delightful surprise, produced her first ever apple!

Although there is much grief in processing our situation, this is a special experience that I get to share
with my mom, and hopefully when the fruit is ready, I will be able to share it with her as it is not only an
apple, but a snapshot of her legacy in teaching her children to also nurture the earth, a true fruit of her

The babysitter down the street…

By LeeAnn Lasswell

Leeann and Mary at Kate’s wedding

My friend, Mary opened her heart and home to me 34 years ago. She had wrangled a handsome sailor, settled into a delightful house that creaked and moaned of times past. The home she and Bill built echoed with the laughter of their two first born: Valiant Prince Peter, her little Tiger and Miss Kate their wide-eyed wonder. Despite some initial interrogation by Katie and mild skepticism from Peter, I passed muster. Mary embraced me and never let go. She taught me how to manage her family with humor and grace, that a toddler’s tantrum was merely a rain dance in disguise. She showed me it was ok to drink tea from the good china, that the laundry could wait. Flashlights at bed time were a must to read books under the bed covers and dreams can come true. She is an encourager of adventure, a mischief maker, a delightful spinner of tales. She makes the mundane sparkle with detail knowing a story must be shared to be fully realized. Brave beyond measure she moves through this world with the wonderment of a child and the wisdom of a sage. When I crossed the Bryan threshold at 16, my education of how to be a force of kindness and strength began. I noticed Mary’s quiet adoration for her champion, Bill, caused him to stand taller and blush often. I also deduced that Mary in a dress and red lipstick for a date night equaled baby Moi’ and subsequently baby Delia. Mary glowed with anticipation of the new life within her. Her mission was to ensure their Littles felt loved. Their Papa’s evening arrival from work was a joyous raucous of giggles and squeals. Mary was a marvel with a baby in her arms. In one fluid movement she could soothe the uncertainty in a child. While nursing, she directed the family, cross legged from the sitting room couch. She’d share in those quiet moments, “I don’t know everything. I am doing the best I can.” Her honesty was humbling, raw. She’d advise me to travel, eat from the earth, and ask questions, to find what I love and do it more. She was wind touching everything in her forest gently enough to be felt but not disturbed. She also had fire, a spark that started as a twinkle and a grin. She reserved it for occasions to right a wrong, to advocate, defend or question a ridiculous notion. She is a force of nurture, courage without end.

The Last Songs with Peter

By Dr. Peter Bryan

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I have been wondering what songs should play at my mom’s funeral.

It’s not to be morbid; as with last conversations, its about what the final memories will entail. Some song will be the last, but it also becomes a thing to remember people by. Songs evoke memories, and there is a whole subgenre of these sorts of goodbyes. Warren Zevon probably offers the perfect example with “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While,” at once personal yet relatable.

We talked this afternoon about my Grandpa Frank Cullen, and his fondness for Italian opera and related musics, and the power of hearing Andre Bochelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye.” It has a power, and it is personal to the family as well, a song played as part of the funeral services, and something that he chose specifically. It is a song that I will always think of him when I hear it.

There are plenty of Broadway songs in this vein; Phantom of the Opera’s “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” came up in conversation, something that evokes the feeling of displacement but also with a sense of hope…and undoubtedly something we will all feel in the years to come.

I sometimes think of my own potential funereal dirges – Mazzy Star’s “Look on Down From the Bridge” or The Bird and the Bee’s “Lifespan of a Fly” or The Seatbelts’s “Adieu” – and these are songs that speak to me in this moment. Mazzy Star was the tune of choice for slow dancing while thinking about my mom.

The obvious song for my own connection to my mom might be “Baby Mine”; I had meant it to be the dance for us at the wedding, but I took to long to get there, and got scooped by my sister, in a roundabout way.

Maybe the last song should be something more upbeat – John Denver always had a special place in my mom’s heart (judging from the number of his records), and there is something reassuring, despite never our family never having lived in either West Virginia or the Rocky Mountains. Why couldn’t the “Country Roads” be a metaphor?

Perhaps it should be something that combines happiness and Broadway; something unobvious but still chosen for the moment. My mom specifically mentioned “You Are My Lucky Star” (the Singin’ in the Rain version, though it is an older song than that). There is an almost lullaby-esque feel to it, and maybe that is the tone to end on.

I don’t yet know what songs will linger in my memory connected to her, what the odd song on the radio might evoke, and what might cause me to randomly break down in the supermarket in six months. Music is a key component of the memory-making process (there is a reason many folks listen to music to study, and schoolkids sing songs about the solar system or presidents), and there will be songs that become inexorably linked with this moment in my life.

The Best Nanny

By Fred Feinberg

Mary and Ben braving the Michigan tundra

We have SO many stories about Mary, but one really stands out. We were always in awe of how diligent and responsible she was. A lot of our friends told us horror stories about Nannies who did massively irresponsible things or just didn’t show up, and we were like “Mary missed 1 and a half days in six years, and let us know well in advance… and, oh yeah, she got our phone system working again.” People would always ask how she did that, and it was fun to tell them that, well, for some reason our phone stopped working and Mary, who’d worked for the phone company, knew what the problem was. Instead of waiting for them to send someone out, SHE CLIMBED THE TELEPHONE POLE to go and correct whatever it was. We weren’t home, or we would have screamed for her to stop, but she probably wouldn’t have listened to us, just like we asked her NOT to shovel snow — “you could get hurt! that’s our job!” — but she did it anyway. But I’d always end the story with, “Oh, yeah, when she did the telephone pole thing, she was 63.” I’m almost that age, and I get winded going up two flights of stairs. We were, and still are, kind of in awe of Mary, such a unique mixture of kindness, industriousness, honesty… and fun! We hope some of her and her daughters’ qualities managed to rub off on our son.

The Last Conversation with Peter…

By Dr. Peter Bryan

Brittany, Peter, and Mary

I don’t know what the last conversation I am going to have with my mom is going to be.

I often wonder who in my life I have had my last conversation with. I live my life in moments and conversations, as most people do, with strange little memories sparked by objects and interactions. I can seem a bit antisocial at times (autism will do that), but I treasure many a late night conversation about old movies, feelings, or quantum physics. Still, all good things must come to an end.

There are people who have left in a permanent fashion: a broken friendship, or some fissure of philosophical, or the vitriolic departure of a lover. There is an obvious end, and no real possibility of restoration.

There are relationships with less obvious endpoints: undergrad chums who remain Facebook friends, who I have already had the last conversation with somewhere around May 2011, or maybe grad school friends that disappeared in the tumult of the past few years. The friendship never ended, but lives moved on, and I have spoken to them for the final time at some point long ago.

There are, of course, those people who seemed lost, but I meet again at a bar when I am in town, or run into on the street, or have a chance encounter online. These are people for whom time and distance mattered little, but there is still an affection and warmth that never diminished.

The trick is that I don’t know which friendships, which relationships each fits into, and really what those last interactions will be. There are people that meant the world to me who I will never speak to again, just as there are people out there who hold me in high regard even if I no longer remember them. There will be those for whom I always thought there would be more time, but there was not, as with my friend Missy just this February. That is the nature of life, and life is rough.

This doesn’t make things any easier. As of this writing, the last conversation I had with my mom was a few nights ago on my wedding night, on the memories of her own small wedding and a few stories of some youthful misbehavior by my Uncle Joe. It didn’t feel like a final talk – and hopefully wasn’t – but there as a realization that there are only so many evening conversations to be had, so many retellings of old stories (and ones I never heard before). There were a thousand (or more) before this, but the difficult thing is that there are only so many left.

I wonder if it will be a short chat about the garden or the day she had, or maybe a phone conversation about how teaching is going. It could be something surprising, a confession of a terrible crime or dreadful secret, though I imagine there are less of these in the world that we might like to think. In a perfect world, it would be a wide-ranging exploration of the family history, how to navigate the world ahead, and the truths of the universe. Probably it will be unexpected – nothing so bold and dramatic, though with those little elements that carry on, that become part of the lore – a reflection of a life well-lived.

The only thing I do know is that this final conversation – whenever it is – will be entirely too soon, but I will carry the memory of this and all of those other late night talks with me forever.