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Guestwords: Nothing Held Back

Wed, 06/26/2024 - 18:02

Mary Graves entered my life rather suddenly and unexpectedly in 1982. Within weeks, she had professed to me that she loved me and I was an amazing kid. “No. Really,” she said, putting her hand on top of my hand and leaning in. “You are amazing, Cebra. And I love you.”

As an awkward preteen, it was hard to believe she was sincere. But I soon grew to learn that this was how Mary loved people: intentionally, spontaneously, and generously. Over the years, I heard her say the same to my wife, my children; from remembrances shared over the past week, I know she said the same to her students at Friends World, her comrades in arms, her neighbors. Mary could lift anyone up.

She was never withholding. If you were witty, she was delighted. If you were needy, she was giving. If you were aspirational, she was your number-one cheerleader. She would knock on doors for you and tell you that you were the best: “Right on!” If you upset her, she’d let you know that, too.

She felt everything — not just her own strong emotions, but the joys and anxieties of the ones she loved, or of people she had only emailed with and never met. She felt the triumphs and griefs of those she had only read about in the newspaper; she could even intuit the delights and sorrows of every four-legged “old soul” she had the fortune to look in the eye and pet.

She went through life without the protective layer that many of us develop. That can be exhausting, and I think it often was for her. But it is also why she was able to make so many friendships, why so many people in this community reached out to our family last week to commiserate with us and share their memories of her.

I’ve always associated Mary with the color red, even though I know her favorite color was blue. Maybe it was because of the red dress she wore at the “formal” backyard wedding that my sister and I, still in thrall to propriety at that age, insisted that she and my father have.

With that association in mind, I rewatched this week a short film that I’m sure many of you have seen, “The Red Balloon,” about a little boy in Paris named Pascal who discovers a beautiful, big red balloon tied to a lamppost on his way to school. I watched it first on Mary’s recommendation.

Pascal retrieves the balloon and it begins to accompany him through his day, through the streets of the city, to school and home, to church. It is a delightful, innocent movie. In my hazy memory, I thought it had been in black and white except for the balloon, but rewatching it, no — it is just that all the other colors of Paris are drab compared to that boy’s bright companion.

And so many of my memories of adolescence are the same, it seems, washed colors of sand and water, restaurant kitchens and boxes of books that needed unpacking for BookHampton, but my memories of Mary stand out brightly in the foreground — conversations about the universe and cell biology and the Sandinistas that lasted well past when I could continue to make sense of them, novels thrust into my hands like exclamation points: “You haven’t read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’? Cebra! You have to read it!”

Sometimes, like on the morning of a declared beach day, she was a blur of motion you could barely follow. Sometimes, like later that same day, set out on a beach chair down and to the right at Indian Wells, with her iced tea in sandy cups and whatever “incredible” book she was then reading, she was a study in peace itself.

In the movie, the balloon is the same, sometimes dancing away and being mischievous, sometimes floating poised near the boy, waiting for his attention.

My dad was persuaded once to submit a piece for a Star supplement — never one of his favorite assignments — on the topic of Marriage, the Second Time Around. He accepted the challenge, because it meant writing about Mary, who was always his favorite subject, and he found some wisdom in the process, that while a good marriage has a lot to do with finding a lucky match, it at least can’t be based on constraints. He wrote a poem about it:


I know this about love

That you must always be willing to let it go

That it is delicate, like a bird,

Who, if you are worthy,

Will alight, and re-alight,

That it is a most wonderful


Disarming, not expecting, commingling

Alight and re-alight

We live from day to day

No longer hopeful, wistful, resigned


Yet surprised

Who would have expected it?

We laugh about that, and many

Other things


Mary was that bird of laughter, that muse, that red balloon in my father’s life, and because of his devotion to her (and his prolix output), she became that red balloon for countless others in this community.

At the end of the film, the naughty boys who have been chasing Pascal and his balloon finally surround them and one bursts the balloon with a slingshot. Pascal is forlorn on the street next to the balloon for a moment. For some reason, in my memory, I had thought that the red balloon reinflated and carried Pascal away, but no. As hard as it is to bear, death is an end, to us or to a balloon.

I think I can be excused for remembering a happier ending, though, because what actually does take place in the movie is that all the balloons of Paris start flying out of the écoles and appartements and patisseries and églises. Streams of blues and greens and yellows and reds, parading through the sky to bereft Pascal. He gathers them up and they, in turn, lift him above the world.

So this is what I take away from “The Red Balloon,” and it is what I take away from Mary’s life as she lived it, too. We should all be that colorful spark for those we love. We can never know when we might pop, so we may as well seek to bring joy to those we love, however we can, for as long as we can.

Cebra Graves is a native of Springs, the son of The Star’s Jack Graves, and a writer and consultant to education institutions. He lives in Brooklyn. 

Mary Graves died on June 17 at the age of 72.


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