By Celina Colby


The nursing home smelled like urine and death. I felt out of place standing in the foyer in my cheerful polka dot skirt and red ballet flats.

“So you’re interested in volunteering?” The overly-perky community coordinator in front of me went on to say, “That’s wonderful; it’s great to see young people trying to connect with an older generation.”

I smiled politely. “Well I’ve always loved hearing my grandparents’ stories.” I failed to mention the part about how I was required to do community service for school.

“Excellent. We’ll put you down for visiting then. Why don’t we start you off with Mary?”

I nodded and followed her down the slightly off-white hallway. Undoubtedly it was supposed to be “eggshell” or “crème” but it just looked dirty: Dirty and sad.

She led me into a room with two beds. Both were empty, but a woman in a wheelchair sat with her back to us, looking out the window.

“Go on in and introduce yourself. You can stay as long as you’d like,” Perky said before rushing off to rope in the next volunteer.

I stood awkwardly in the door for a few seconds.

“Uh, excuse me?” I said. Nothing. “Excuse me,” louder.

Slowly she wheeled herself around.

“Did you say something?” she asked. She had snow-white hair, still a good head of it, and bright blue eyes. Her face was a splotchy red, and she held her hands clasped in her lap.

“Yes. I’m volunteering here, and I’ve been assigned to you. I’m Celina.”

She looked me up and down, assessing. “You really should speak up. No one will take you seriously without a commanding voice.” She turned back to the window.

That was how I met Mary.

The next week she didn’t apologize, her Irish pride wouldn’t allow for that, but she did offer to share her pudding cup with me, and that was enough.

Her room was the same ugly white color as the hallway. It featured two rolling beds divided by a curtain and a built-out set of cabinets in a muddy brown. Mary’s bed was by the only window. She had a portrait of her son and a crucifix on the wall. We spent almost all of our time in that room, watching old TV shows and checking the status of the bird feeder outside.

“Do you want to see what they’re doing in the activity room?” I asked.

“Nah, those crafts are for sissies,” she said, fiddling with her chair. “If I wanted to glue colored paper onto popsicle sticks I would’ve gone back to preschool.”

I smiled. I admired Mary’s easy ability to speak her mind. Why keep it to yourself? She always said. We’re all here to die anyway.

“Do you take Latin?” she asked me early on.

“No, I take Spanish.”

She shook her head at me. “You really should take Latin. No education is complete without understanding the basis of all languages.”

I nodded. “You’re right; I should at least know some of the root words.”

“You should know the language,” she said, looking me right in the eyes, smiling but serious.

“How do you say ‘I will learn Latin?’”

Ego Latiné discere cupiant.

I repeated carefully, “Ego Latiné discere cupiant.

At 2 pm every week we went out for her smoke break. I wheeled her down the hall and out the backdoor while she yelled jokes and riffs at the nurses.

“Cut your hair for God’s sake, you look like a hippie!”

“What time are we getting dinner tonight? I’m already hungry from lunch.”

“Why are you still here? Go home, you work too hard!”

A group of five or so patients would assemble on the small concrete patio outside for a half hour every day. I stood next to Mary in the frigid, New England winter, five wheelchairs in a circle and myself, in my pink tights and white coat, nodding along while they talked about “the war.” Eventually the conversation would turn to me.

“Celina is an excellent student,” Mary would say. “She’s in all honors courses, and she’s going to take up Latin.”

The others would nod approvingly and assess me while they took a collective drag.

“You’re dressed up real nice,” one of them said. “You going to a wedding?”

“She always looks nice,” Mary pitched in. “She’s a very classy girl.”

She would never compliment me to my face — that could go to a girl’s head. But it was during the smoke breaks that I started to understand how much my visits meant.

After about ten minutes of talking a restful silence would fall on the group. When Mary was finished she would hand me her cigarette, and I would put it out in the nearby ashtray. We all sat for a while, smoke puffing up and hanging in the cold air, the snow piles around us black with grime. I put my hand on Mary’s hand, and she squeezed it and smiled.

One day after the smoke break as we watched the original Hawaii 5-0, I broached the subject.

“Does your son come visit much?”

“Not often. He’s very busy.” She didn’t look at me.

I was sitting on her bed. She sat in her chair looking at the screen.

“He’s missing out,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.

“It gets very lonely,” she admitted. “Knowing we’re all here just waiting for the end.”

On the screen they were catching the bad guy, cuffing him and high-fiving each other.

“Mary,” I said.

She turned her chair towards me. “Yes?”

“How do you say ‘I love you’ in Latin?”

She grabbed my hand and squeezed.

Te amo.

On Christmas Eve Mary and I became the official spreaders of holiday cheer. Dressed in matching Santa hats we went from room to room dropping off red and white carnations. Mary knew everyone.

“Merry Christmas!” She crowed as we rolled into a room at the opposite end of the home.

“Well my, my, if it isn’t the most beautiful damsel in all of New Hampshire,” said a surprisingly handsome and agile man from where he sat on his bed. He leaned down and kissed her. “How you doing, baby?”

She turned to me. “This is my boyfriend, John.”

“Mary!” I fake-scolded. “All this time you’ve been seeing a boy!”

She laughed. “Well I might as well have a little fun around here.”

After our rounds we exchanged gifts. She gave me a blue and yellow plaid scarf, and I gave her a box of specialty chocolates for her stash. While we sampled the chocolates and gossiped about her new roommate, I couldn’t help but be amazed. Sixty some-odd years between us, and this woman was still one of my dearest friends.

After Christmas she gave me the December report. Roberta, Charles and Hector had died. Roberta had been in the smoking group, so that day at 2 pm we held a makeshift memorial for her. Sitting in the circle we all held hands and said our last words to her. Mary recited a brief prayer. Even in the midst of death I still never considered that it could happen to her. It’s funny how we can be so close to something and still not see it.

In the fall I went off to college. I still called Mary with some frequency and thought of her often. My school didn’t offer Latin, and I knew she’d be furious if she found out.

On Christmas Eve I put on my Santa hat and prepped for the perfect night. I put together a picnic basket with all the trappings of an elaborate tea. Delicate china cups, cookies of all sorts, little finger sandwiches. I also brought her present, a framed picture of us from the Christmas before.

When I got to her room she wasn’t there. That’s odd, I thought. She must have moved.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Mary. Do you know what room she moved to?” I asked a nearby nurse.

“I’m not sure where she is,” she said. “Why don’t you ask the front desk?” It struck me as strange but I thought maybe she was new.

“Hi, I’m looking for Mary,” I told the woman up front, putting on my best help-me smile.

“Oh dear, I’m sorry,” she said. “She died.”

I don’t remember leaving or driving home. I didn’t ask any of the important questions. How did she go? When? Was she in pain?

In my living room I crumpled. I wasn’t family, but I couldn’t believe they hadn’t called. For two years I had visited Mary every week, and they hadn’t called. I clutched the photograph of us, still wrapped in cheerful holiday paper, and visualized those bright eyes, that serious smile. Te amo. Te amo. Te amo.

About this writer

  • Celina Colby is a Boston based writer and the founder of the style blog “Trends and Tolstoy.”

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3 Responses to “Mary”

  1. George Colby says:

    Thanks Celina what a beautiful moving tribute. You touched my soul.

  2. Rose Ann Sinay says:

    Mary was lucky to have you as “family”; and what wonderful memories you have of her. Such a beautifully written, emotional essay!

  3. You and Mary had a wonderful connection, a mutual love for one another. Your visits added to her happiness. This was a very touching story.

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