Along came Mary

Movies were a big deal when I was a girl. Now movies are made and released one after another, but when I was little there were not nearly as many of them so it was a real occasion when one came out. People dressed-up to go to the cinema, there were luxurious padded seats covered in thick burgundy velvet at the theatre we went to in downtown Toronto, and an enormous pair of curtains made of the same material would majestically sweep aside to reveal the screen when the movie began. I’m not sure if they showed Coming Attractions, but I know for a fact there were no commercials. I remember well the first time I saw an ad before a movie because several people in the theatre, myself included, started to boo. Having to pay to see advertisements just seemed like the ultimate rip-off. It still does.

My mother’s only sister had married an American and lived with him and their three sons in Raynham, Massachusetts, about an hour outside of Boston. Every summer we would visit them for a few weeks, making trips to the beach and their club which had a full-size pool, a super warm wading pool with a fountain in the middle, a playground, several tennis courts and a killer snack bar which served frozen Mars bars. Then every winter they would come visit us for about a week over Christmas, stopping in Vermont on the way to do some skiing. One of the highlights of their visit, aside from what I now recognize as the embarrassing number of gifts they brought, was when we would all pile in the cars and go see whatever movie was the current big Christmas release.

One memorable year, that movie was “Mary Poppins”. This must have been a special Christmas re-release because the movie actually premiered in January of 1965, so too late for holiday viewing, and I would only have been 3 at that time and I’m absolutely sure I was older than that when I first saw it. In any case, my incredible excitement made me super antsy as we waited for the film to begin, so I began to play a game I’ll call “bouncy, bouncy”. The rules were simple – you’d sit on the top of the chair when the seat was flipped up, let your weight pull the seat down until you were sitting on the cushion, bounce a few times, get off so it flipped up again, then repeat to your heart’s content. Seems like a harmless way to pass the time, but not to my mother. She could not abide misbehaviour of any kind by her children, especially in public, and she employed a stealthy and tremendously effective method to bring us silently into line. The one small vanity my mother enjoyed was her nails which she filed to perfect points and buffed to a dazzling sheen. When she wanted you to stop doing something she considered unacceptable, she would grasp you around the upper arm, curl her hand so her razor sharp nails were pressed against the soft flesh underneath, and simply pull up. She didn’t have to say anything, she didn’t even have to look at you, but you would be up on your tippy-toes frantically whispering “I’ll stop! I’ll stop!” before you knew what had hit you. She’d then let go and life would go forward as though the whole exchange had never happened. Needless to say I didn’t get to play “bouncy, bouncy” for very long.

After what felt like an eternity the movie started, and as soon as I saw Mary Poppins float down from the sky I was in love. My adoration for her only grew as the movie continued, and by the end of it I was obsessed with all things Mary. It is a strange and particular thing to have a crush on an older woman as a little girl. You simultaneously want to be her, want to marry her, and want her to be your mother. I’m sure a Freudian would have ascribed my feelings to something dark and/or sexual lurking in my subconscious, but to me they were pure and true. She was my idol and my ideal.

My adoration for her continued for months, and rather than getting fed-up and telling me to knock it off, my Mom seemed charmed by my fixation. After all, if your kid is going to idolize a fictional character you could do far worse than Mary Poppins, like Long John Silver or the Artful Dodger, for example. Who wouldn’t want their child to follow directives like mind your parents, tidy your room and take your medicine without complaint? So when my birthday rolled around in August, my Mom gave me a Mary Poppins umbrella and matching hat box with a convenient carrying handle. Oh joy, oh bliss! Somewhere in the bowels of my basement is a picture of me proudly holding that hat box, looking pleased but also somewhat grave because of the responsibility of owning something from Mary. It felt as though she was trusting me to represent her.

The hat box contained only my most prized possessions and I treated it with the utmost care and respect, but the umbrella was another matter. It didn’t talk as Mary’s had, but I felt sure it contained the same magic as hers. So I waited until a very windy day, then went out in the backyard and stood on the edge of the picnic table with the wind at my back. I tentatively opened the umbrella and held it behind my head. When a particularly large gust of wind came along, I turned the umbrella around, ran with all my might to the opposite end of the table and launched myself into the air. And…I landed on my ass. What?! Okay, so it didn’t work the first time. Maybe I needed to hold the umbrella at a different angle…no. Maybe I needed to run faster…no. Maybe if a just stood at the edge and jumped… no, NO, NO. Again and again I tried to take flight, but every time I leapt I landed flat-out on the lawn. It is hard to describe how utterly betrayed I felt when I finally gave up and trudged into the house. My inability to fly exposed Mary for the fraud she was, and made me feel like a fool for faithfully following her example all those months. I furled up the umbrella, snapped it closed and jammed it into the stand in the front hall, vowing to never use it again.

I was very upset after this happened, feeling listless and adrift – what we would now classify as depressed. My mother noticed my black mood a few weeks later and insisted, against my many protestations and excuses, that I go play in the park. Knowing I could only defy her for so long before the old fingernail treatment, I eventually gave in and headed outside. It was a blustery day with storm clouds in the sky, so my mother insisted I bring my umbrella – the despised symbol of that charlatan which I had sworn never to touch again. I was about to balk when it occurred to me that this could be the perfect opportunity for me to be rid of the umbrella once and for all, so I picked it up and started out.

I headed down my street and no sooner had I turned the corner towards the park when the wind picked up enormously. A large fence now hid me from my mother’s view so I immediately started to unfurl the umbrella, figuring this would be a good time to “accidentally” lose it.

“I’m so sorry Mom, but the wind just whipped it out of my hands and pulled it away into the sky.”

I had just opened the umbrella in front of me, preparing to let go, when all of the sudden the wind redoubled and I was pulled down the street. I realize now that my feet must have been on the ground the whole time and it probably only lasted for a few seconds, but at that moment it felt like I was being lifted aloft by Mary’s magic, and time stood still.

After the wind died down, I stood dumbstruck in the middle of the sidewalk, understanding in a flash that everything I had felt was true. I snapped the umbrella closed, needing no further evidence, and continued to the park where I sat down on a swing to think. I was almost tearful as I felt my adoration return in waves; my devotion vindicated and justified by that one simple “flight”.

“Oh Mary, full of grace, please forgive my lapse in faith”.

Deep in my heart, I somehow knew she already had.

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