Some of you met Mary Darian in “I Am Mae Mobley,” one of my early posts here in My Mother’s Attic. In part an outcry against an upsurge in race-related killings during the summer of 2016, that piece is at heart a tribute to Mary–the woman who helped my mother rise to the Herculean task of raising six children. Since I launched this blog, Mae Mobley continues to garner far more views than any other Attic post–testimony to Mary’s captivating character. In that earlier piece, I lamented that during the two decades Mary worked for our family, I failed to learn much about her life. I vowed then to make amends for this, to reach out to Mary, though I was more than a little nervous about cold-calling after so many years of silence. I might have known that was a waste of emotional energy. In the years that followed, in spite of facing one personal challenge after another, Mary shared detail after detail about her story, and more broadly, her family’s story, which to her were one and the same.
One morning not too long before the pandemic hit, I went to see Mary at the nursing home where she’d recently moved. Her room was small but comfortable–a sink and closet against one wall, a twin bed at the center, a broad window at the far side, the ledge below crowded with photos of her grand- and great-grandchildren. Mary’s devoted daughter, Lou, had a bird-feeder installed just outside the window so Mary could enjoy sparrows and robins and fiery red cardinals as they flitted about. By this point in her life, Mary was confined to a wheel chair, though I was soon to learn that in her case, confined did not apply.
I breezed through the door a little earlier than usual to find no Mary in sight. I heard a scuffle on the far side of the room and stepped closer. She had wheeled herself into the narrow space between bed and radiator and crouched low over her knees, her head nearly hidden between the bed and bedside table.
“Mary?” I asked, trying to control the worry in my voice. “Can I help?”
“Oh!” she said, her voice bright with enthusiasm as she looked up. “Angel Face!” (the pet name she coined for me as a baby). “Come on over here!”
I did just that. Mary craned about and reached her long arms around my neck. That’s when something shiny flashed in her lap–a long, thin metallic tool.
“Just give me a minute …” she said, ducking head under table again. “While I find my Puh …”
“Here, can I get it for you?” I asked, though I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Her paper? Her pillow? I tried to maneuver between wheelchair and radiator but the space was tight, the bedside table happily cluttered–a card illustrated in blue crayon, a tub of Vaseline, a small glass vase filled with Alstroemeria, a stack of word puzzle books and a red leather Bible, its pages well-thumbed.
“What is it you need, Mary?”
No answer, just more poking at that shelf.
“Ah, here it is!” she cried at last. Turning, she sat up straight, her expression devilish and triumphant. “My Ponds!”
She held out the stick, which I then could see had a grip handle at one end and a sort of claw at the other, not unlike the mechanism in that arcade game in Toy Story (The claw is our master … ). Caught firmly in Mary’s claw was a jar of Ponds cold cream, same pale green cap and tulip logo as the ones my mother used to keep on her vanity table.
With easy dexterity, Mary twisted open the jar, scooped out a finger full, and chatting all the while, began massaging the silky cream into her still-smooth complexion. Her task complete, I offered to return the jar to its shelf. She laughed, waved me away, and did it herself, metal claw re-extended. Then she nabbed her hairbrush from the drawer, dropped it in her lap, and wheeled over to the sink. One of her feet–slightly swollen–nearly collided with the corner of the bed frame as she went.
“Mary, your leg–is it ok?”
“Oh that …” she mumbled as she set the hairbrush at the edge of the sink. “Some kind of blood clot in that old leg.” Then she plucked a cloth from a towel rod, wet it generously, and ran it across her short thick curls before brushing them out.
“Ok, now …” she went on, patting her head and smiling at my reflection in the mirror. “That’s better. I never know what it’ll look like in the mornings.” Then guttural laughter as she spun her chair around to face me. “Now tell me … What have you been up to?”
I gathered my thoughts, but before I got a word out, her eyes flew open wide and she cried, “Wait a minute! … I forgot my teeth!”
With that, and without a wrinkle of embarrassment, Mary spun back around, tugged a set of dentures out of a cup and slathered them with toothpaste. While she gave them a sturdy brushing under the faucet, I marveled at the independence, the lack of self-consciousness, and the serene acceptance of the time-consuming rituals of growing old that she possessed.
“Your mama liked Ponds, too,” she mused. “You know …” She paused and turned to me, that devilish smile restored. “She may have been the one who got me started with it!”
Whether this was true or its inverse–that Mary actually introduced my mother to Ponds–didn’t matter. This was a habit they shared, one I hadn’t known about, and something soft padded into my heart. Not a visit passed between us that Mary didn’t turn our conversations back to my parents, or one of my siblings–to those days she was part of the everyday workings of our busy household. She loved especially to wax on about my mother’s expertise as a seamstress, but then she’d been doing this since my summer camp days. Your mother made a white jacket for her new formal gown with shells around the midriff … she penned in a letter she sent off to Camp Merrie-Woode. Wow! When the lady moves, she gets momentum and never stops … Then, one of her witty after thoughts–I think she’s going to wear her sexy red sandals.
Back then, ten years old and homesick, I likely cried to read this, but it was a good cry. Mary was enfolding me from a distance into the home life I loved. I understand now that during our recent visits, she was doing much the same. Her smiles, her laughter, her stories, were keeping my mother, my father, in short, my childhood alive. She did me as much good–no, probably more–than I did her.
Though she lost her mother very young, Mary was eager to share her father’s story, too. In the 1920s, when he was hardly more than a child, Jimmie Lee Cochran worked the cotton fields of Hurtsboro, Alabama, where he lived on a farm with his mother and grandmother. In 1939, when Mary was four, Jimmie Lee came within an inch of being lynched. After a narrow escape, he managed to slip away to Atlanta, where he built a long career with Southern Railway. More importantly, a decade later Mary’s father brought her and her younger siblings to the home he’d built–literally built with his own hands–for his family. The twists and turns of Jimmie Lee Cochran’s story, and Mary’s alongside, paint a shimmering picture of courage, devotion to family, and perseverance. It’s a story that could fill a book. Maybe someday it will.
Born in 1935 in Hurtsboro, Mary Cochran Darian moved on from this world on April 18th, 2023. She worked those Alabama cotton fields herself before graduating from Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High. She married her sweetheart, Lewis Darian, and after twenty years with our family moved on to an administrative career at Crawford Long Hospital. Through it all, Mary took care of people–her four children, her physically disabled brother, her neighbors and grandchildren, her church family (to them she was “Mother Darian”) and me and … well, the list goes on. Her family held a “Homegoing Celebration” last week at her beloved church. The service left room for sorrow but had joyful music aplenty and tributes full of love and hope meant to speed Mary along on her journey to the place she firmly believed was her true home. I think everyone who spoke of Mary mentioned that infectious smile that so warmed me during our visits in her last years. I’ve mentioned the knack Mary had for helping me laugh away my little girl challenges and preteen angst. Her ability to smile and laugh herself through the many trials of aging was to me more remarkable. My mother had her strengths, but facing old age with grace was not one of them. She raged against the dying of the light, and though there’s something to be said for that, the way Mary kept her spirits high in spite of the slings and arrows fortune tossed her way not only eased her days, it lightened the hearts of those who cared for her.
The pastor who gave Mary’s eulogy asserted that her smile set an important example. If you love God, he suggested, the least you can do is smile for the world to see. Mary’s resting face was a smile, a natural one, broad and vibrant in a way that said, Watch out because here comes a laugh, a big one straight from the belly! The photo below offers proof. I can hear my brothers and my father laughing with Mary even now.
The cover of Mary’s Homegoing tribute booklet features a couple of her favorite phrases. “I expect a miracle every day,” reads one of them. For those who consider miracles to be only raising the dead or turning water into wine, this may sound like hyperbole. Like the wisest among us, Mary knew that the simplest things could be miracles: The touch of her first great-great grandchild settling into her lap; the familiar taste of the meals Lou prepared at home and brought to her room; the right to vote safely and the freedom to shop where she pleased and sit at the front of the bus (freedoms she had to wait until age thirty to enjoy); the weekly Bingo games (she won a lot) with other residents in the nursing home common room; a skittish bluebird in the morning sun, darting close for a nibble from her feeder before the pushier birds moved in.
Miracles every one, just as Mary was to all who knew her. She is home now, flights of angels singing her to her rest.