Although all of this is factual, I’m using the name “Mary” instead of her actual name.

When we read about heroes we are usually made aware of some spectacular event or accomplishment. But the hero I am writing about is just a simple woman who has overcome overwhelming obstacles and in my opinion, has attained the status of hero.

I met Mary 51 years ago when this pleasant, smiling, dimple-faced, chubby black woman answered an ad for a once-a-week household helper. On our first meeting, I was immediately impressed by her manner. As I acquainted her with my house, she observed the large quantity of books I collected and asked if she could borrow a book each week. She said she loved reading but was never able to complete high school. 

“This would be a joy,” she said, “having my own private library.” 

She told me she had been raped at age 15, gave birth to a baby boy, and therefore was not permitted to return to school. She was scorned by her family and friends and even her grandmother said she had disgraced the family. 

She decided to travel to Chicago from Mississippi to live with more understanding relatives. They helped her with care for her baby and she found a housekeeping job “to help earn her keep.” 

During the ensuing years she was able to work steadily and also met the man who became her common law husband. Mary described him as a good, reliable construction worker who brought her his weekly check. He fathered seven of her eight children and was a caring parent. He was not a “drinking man,” but one Friday he came home late, drunk, without a paycheck and wildly violent. In an effort to protect Mary from his rage, her son stabbed him with a kitchen knife severely injuring him. He was unable to do any physical work again and he required care. 

Somehow Mary managed to care for him and increase her workload to cover the expenses. But her primary care was always for her children. She readily sacrificed any of her desires to satisfy theirs. (Often I observed her accepting blame for their errors or misdeeds.)

Soon after I met Mary, I met her children. They were all very bright. Her oldest son was a charmer but also the most difficult. Trouble and this young man were synonymous. His desire for easy money was an enticing goal, no matter how he got it. To Mary’s dismay, he was incarcerated several times. But she overlooked the worry, disappointment and pain the children caused her. She appreciated every flicker of brightness they displayed.

I believe she was especially proud of one son’s achievements, graduating with high honors and attending the University of Illinois Champaign. In an effort to interest his younger brother in planning for college, he took him to view the school after one of his home visits. On the way, his car had a flat tire which he stopped to change. A drunken driver swerved off the highway and killed him instantly. His brother, viewing this horror, went into shock. This caused lifelong mental problems. Mary dealt with this double tragedy with courage and determination to keep her family together.

Soon after this tragedy, Mary’s older daughter married and moved to St. Louis. After a few years together and two children, her husband left her. She returned to Mary’s welcoming care. Mary had the boys in the family build a separate apartment in their basement for their sister. She thought this in-house apartment arrangement would allow her daughter some independence while feeling secure and accepted and allow her to feel proud of her family.

Instead, her daughter continued to feel abandoned and became another family for Mary to care for. She never considered this care a burden “just more children to love.”

There was a special bonding between Mary and me when her younger daughter and my daughter were teenagers. Her daughter was a freshman when my daughter was a senior. They had similar interests — music and dance — and wore the same-size clothes.

Mary’s younger daughter was an unusually talented dancer and while in school she was accepted to the Martha Graham study program. After high school she was hired to perform with the Martha Graham Dance Troupe and traveled throughout the United States. During this exciting time, she met “the love of her life.” Although he was not living with his wife, she was unwilling to allow a divorce. Mary’s daughter chose to give up her dance career and live with him in hopes that his wife would eventually agree to a divorce. Mary never expressed disappointment and never judged her daughter’s decision. She always offered her support although she was concerned, observing her daughter’s unhappiness.

By the time the divorce took place, they had a daughter. Mary’s daughter loved her family but struggled and resorted to drugs. Even though they were finally married and her family life was as she desired, her drug habit persisted, ending in her suicide. Her notes revealed her depression and the guilt she felt leaving her husband and child behind and disappointing her mother. For Mary, another tragedy to accept!

I don’t know how Mary managed to continue believing in the goodness of mankind and value of life, but she did. She never had a harsh word against anyone, even when she faced frequent incidents of racial prejudice. She had difficulties cashing her personal checks from the very bank that held her bank account. Waitresses and store clerks often would care for white customers before her.

Her home was raided by police on the suspicion she or her family stashed drugs there. Sofa cushions and mattresses were slashed, cabinets and dressers were emptied, and the house was “turned upside down.” Although the police left a voucher to cover the cost of their useless destruction, the voucher did not cover the emotional trauma she suffered or even the physical cleanup.

Probably the most demeaning of her encounters took place when Mary’s home had a kitchen fire. She and members of her family were busy setting the dining room for dinner. Her grandson was in his high chair in the kitchen when the dog began to bark, alerting them to an electrical fire that began smoldering in the kitchen. Mary’s son rushed to secure the baby out of his high chair and they all hurried out of the house. The unnoticed smoldering developed rapidly into major smoke and fire, but the firemen arrived in time to save Mary’s home.

When Mary applied for insurance reimbursement for the loss, the claim agent accused her of purposefully setting the fire. He insisted that Mary and her family all endure lie detector tests before presenting her request to the insurance company. The insurance company did resolve the issue, but I was infuriated by the claim agent’s behavior. I don’t know that my letters affected the outcome in any way, but both Mary and I received apologies from the insurance company. The letters I sent to this prominent company contained a copy of my registered complaint to the Better Business Bureau. My hope was that the future claim adjusters would be more sensitive people.

Mary was pleased by my action, but she was not surprised by the agent’s accusations. To some extent she expected his attitude and took it all in stride. She appreciated the outcome — a rebuilt kitchen, a smoke-free house and some replaced damaged furniture and clothing. 

“Everyone is safe and we are back to normal,” she said.

Her “normal” life was interrupted by a heart attack. Bypass surgery followed with some complications, which caused a slow recovery. Her spirit remained optimistic. She said, “It’s God’s will that I live. I guess he has more work for me to do.”

I believe her work was to set an example for all of us to follow as a way in which to enjoy each day we have on earth, appreciate what life has to offer and to live without hate or prejudice. 

It’s a tall order! I wish I could follow it, but at least I had the honor and pleasure of getting to know Mary, my hero. 

Her “work” on earth ended Dec. 7.

Harriet Hausman, a longtime resident of River Forest, is the author of “A History of River Forest.”

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