A little more than a year ago, winter returned to Pendleton with a vengeance late in the season. Snow piled up with surprising amounts of the white stuff. Some days it was light and dry, easy to clear from the sidewalks in front of our house. Other days it came down wet and heavy.
Most days I tried to get out to shovel before too many pedestrians had left their footprints, which I knew would make removal more difficult. But no matter how early I left the house to get to a more efficient cleanup, my neighbor Mary was usually already ahead of me, clearing her sidewalk. On at least one day, the sound of shoveling greeted me as I drank my morning cup of coffee. My guess was that years of so-called lake effect snowstorms in Fulton, New York, had taught her that it’s best to get ahead of the accumulation. And that neighborliness toward those walking by with their dogs or for exercise in our walkable town begins with a cleared sidewalk first thing in the morning.
Those first greetings shoveling snow allowed us to chat briefly and get to know one another as newcomers to Pendleton. What amazed me about Mary was how quickly she joined in the life of her new hometown. She told me that she needed to shovel first thing in the morning, so that she could get going to her volunteer stint at the neighborhood thrift store, a great place to get to know people.
Other locals I was getting to know dropped her name, in awe of the octogenarian who was available to local events needing volunteer assistance, whether at the Oregon East Symphony or the Eagles Lodge. At lunch, recently, she stopped to chat with others when she came in and again as she departed, a sign that she has succeeded in making herself at home here.
Making friends seems to come easily to Mary. She beams with pride when she talks about her daughter, whose professional life brought them to Pendleton. Mary raised her two daughters, frequently on her own and on the move during the events of the Cold War, her first husband an intelligence agent. “I lived cloak and dagger,” she said about her experiences with postings to Berchtesgaden and Giessen, Germany, during the tensions of the Cold War, watching the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 on German television 244 miles away in Giessen.
When her husband told her he might not see her again, and his superior officer advised the wives of plans for them to drive westward for evacuation, she countered with “I’m not getting on the Autobahn!” more fearful of driving a car for the first time than of military danger.
With her husband in Korea, she joined other military families stateside at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and for a time in Newburgh, New York, but then posted during the Vietnam War to Bangkok, Thailand. During this stint she witnessed two coups, once as “extra eyes,” when a local Thai soldier secreted documents intended for the American ambassador with Mary as shots surrounded her.
Whether abroad or stateside, Mary made her contributions where she could, sometimes in hospital auxiliaries wherever she found herself, or in ways to assist those who knew her. She’s had an impact, telling me of an American serviceman who left his personal belongings with her in Bangkok before he returned to Vietnam, assured they’d get back to his mother because, as he told her, “another mother had my things.”
The folks among us whose lifespan includes significant challenges in our national and regional life can offer us important insights as we work to solve the difficulties we face today. Their memories and experiences during the Great Depression and Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the struggles for civil rights, how they’ve lived through changes in our social fabric can help us gain new perspectives on the deep divides around us that we seek to overcome.
And then too, maybe I’m just happy to find inspiration and newfound energy from my neighbor, whose message through her actions is that with enough effort we can get through it.