Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Grandmother Dorothy Day

It can’t be easy being Mary. In our town there are several professional dog-walking services and Mary’s is one of them, although to call Mary a professional might be an embarrassment to any self-respecting doctor, lawyer, professor, or prostitute.

While the other services in town seem to feature young, long-legged, eye-catching women walking clutches of four, six, or even eight dogs jostling each other at the ends of a fistful of leashes, Mary serves one or two dogs at a time. Instead of operating out of a central office in the downtown, where dogs pant hopefully while waiting for their masters and mistresses at large display windows, Mary’s service is based in a beat-up old Subaru wagon, in which the dogs ride proudly in the back seat and Mary drives. She picks the dogs up at their homes and walks them in the park, one home at a time, all day long.

Mary’s service also notably involves Mary, and Mary is, at first glance and at just about any glance you can throw her, a notch beyond eccentric.

Mary sometimes appears to be talking to herself, although I have learned that she is usually talking to a dog. Since most people don’t make a practice or a profession of talking to dogs in public places, and since very few people know their dogs as well as Mary knows other people’s dogs, this behavior, while completely rational, looks wacky. And since Mary is no longer young and never was long-legged, there may be a tendency to write her off as that nutty old dog-walking lady who talks to herself.

I have always liked Mary. If I knew her better, I might dare to say that I love Mary.

Mary walks her clients in a park near my home, and since I am something of a walker, not to say nutty old man, I often run into her. We talk, although admittedly talking to Mary is sometimes difficult. My best guess, without knowing her well, is that a habit of being ignored has left Mary with a fidgety diffidence that makes it hard for her to sustain eye contact. Her head and face and eyes are usually in motion, and her attention wanders from you to her dog friends, and when she mentions a name it is usually a dog’s name, which she mutters in a familiar way that leaves you wondering why you don’t know Billy or Buffy or Spike, while thinking that you should. This is confusing and contributes to the impression that Mary is confused herself, which I don’t think she is.

Mary is one of those ignored treasures that every small town should be prouder of. And no, Mary is not her real name.

Yesterday afternoon, I taught my fourth-grade religious education class a few things about Dorothy Day, my favorite bad-ass Catholic lady saint-in-waiting. Dorothy (1897–1980) founded the Catholic Worker movement, which publishes a penny-a-sheet newspaper and runs houses of hospitality (homeless shelters with heart). You can subscribe to the newspaper, for 25 cents a year, and learn other stuff about the CW movement here.

Dorothy Day looked like this.

In the picture, she was protesting some injustice or other and pissing off cops who no doubt thought, That nutty old lady.

So I was teaching my class yesterday about Dorothy Day and I was trying to transition into that late-stage part of the annual course where I ask the students to choose a saint for personal study and final project. I thought, how better to introduce the idea of saint than to ask a child if there is some adult—a parent, grandparent, teacher, coach, priest—who has inspired them with their generosity, kindness, or wisdom?

I was met with a roomful of blank faces. I looked around hopefully until finally one quiet boy, who almost never raises his hand, raised his hand.

Yes, Jimmy, I asked. And no, Jimmy is not his real name.

I have someone, Jimmy said.

Who’s that?

My grandmother, Jimmy answered.

I acknowledged without naming her that I knew Jimmy’s grandmother and I told Jimmy that this was a very good choice. Jimmy’s grandmother is Mary, who walks dogs in the park near my house.

Jimmy and I looked at each other and nodded with the certainty that comes when one meets a true witness, someone who may look nutty while doing God’s work. Then Jimmy did something he rarely does in my class. He smiled.

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