by Steve Slavin
From when they first met in college until her death some 25 years later, Mary considered herself the luckiest woman in the world. She had married the man of her dreams. But those who knew the Fergusons felt that David was the lucky one.
Mary would be the first to admit that she was no great beauty, but she was really smart, very personable, and extremely kind. She was rather plain, but when she smiled, you couldn’t help but smile too.
David was smart, easygoing, and fairly good-looking, with a full head of dark brown hair and a brush mustache. And if he fooled around a little, Mary never noticed or at least pretended she didn’t. And David did love Mary, at least in his own way.
Mary Ferguson was a classic workaholic. And David?
Maybe that’s not completely fair. David did work... on occasion. A few days here and there he worked as a house painter, and every now and then as a waiter at a wedding or some other special event.
He remembered when a bride and her parents treated the waiters like complete crap, and then didn’t even tip them. A couple of days later, when he went to the bank to deposit his check, he and the teller just stared at each other. It was the bride. Now who was so high and mighty?
In 1971, the Fergusons founded a quarterly literary magazine. David was the publisher and editor in chief, while Mary, among other jobs, wrote the rejection letters. Seven or eight of their friends served on the editorial board, meeting Thursday evenings at the Fergusons’ apartment to discuss submissions.
Mary was the family breadwinner, working as an editor at a small publishing house. Their division of labor worked perfectly. Mary got up at the crack of dawn, and was at her desk by 8:00 a.m. David was rarely up before noon.
He did work on the magazine, Box 749, named for the post office box they had been assigned at the Chelsea Station. And then too, he did have to look after their real estate empire. When their building went co-op, they bought the one-bedroom apartment they lived in and an almost identical apartment right behind them at the top of a fifth-floor walk-up on West 22nd Street, just off 9th Avenue.
The back apartment was occupied over the years by a long line of friends, and it was David’s job each month to collect the rent, always in cash, and to write out a receipt. He also did some of the shopping, and would heat up the food Mary had left for him.
These duties hardly constituted full-time work. What David really did was write poetry. While most of us dabbled at it, occasionally getting our poems published in small literary magazines, David was much more serious. If you asked him what he did, he would not say he was a publisher, an editor, a house painter, a waiter, or even a landlord. David was a poet.
The only problem was that very few of his poems were published in literary magazines except his own. But over the years he met the publishers of other small magazines. Every so often, one of their poems would appear in Box 749. And perhaps not coincidentally, one of David’s would be appear in that publisher’s magazine.
I attended just one of the magazine meetings, when submissions were considered for the second or third issue. When I arrived, Mary was still in the kitchenette washing the supper dishes, and David was sitting on the living room couch, puffing away on his pipe. In his best stentorian tone, he asked if I would like a cup of coffee.
“Sure, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all!... Oh, Mary?”
As more people arrived, Mary put out platters of noshes, and a few bottles of wine appeared. We went through scores of poems, stories, and even a couple of songs someone had sent. After all, the “Box” was a magazine of the printable arts.
The Fergusons were at the center of a group of couples in their late twenties or early thirties who lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, or maybe even somewhere out in Queens. All of us worked for a living, but we had at least some pretention of being writers. In the 1970s, who didn’t write poetry?
Every month or so, most of us would get together at someone’s apartment for a party. Often Mary would collapse on a couch or a bed after just one or two glasses of wine. David would gently wake her when it was time to go home. Once, at my apartment, I told him that they were both welcome to stay. But he explained that Mary loved waking up at home on Sunday mornings; she could get an immediate start on her weekly cleaning.
I had met the Fergusons through my girlfriend, Gail. After everyone left, I told her what David had said, and we had a good laugh. Gail more or less tolerated David, but it riled her that he barely lifted a finger to do anything.
As Gail left for work on Monday morning, she noticed David’s pipe on the table next to the door. A half hour later, she was laughing when she called me from work. “You’ll never guess who I ran into on the Clark Street Station!”
When I finally gave up, she practically screamed, “Mary Ferguson!”
“Mary?... Mary! What could she possibly be doing in Brooklyn Heights on a Monday morning? Is she having an affair?”
“That’s what I thought!”
“Gail, what was she doing there?”
“Well, on Saturday night, they took a car service back home. And David left his gloves in the office.”
“So how come Mary was picking them up?”
“She said they were very expensive gloves, so they couldn’t be left sitting there too long. And she didn’t want to wake David so early in the morning. You know, of course, that he is a rather late sleeper.”
“Hey, I should have told her to pick up the pipe.”
* * *
David and Mary had very different family backgrounds. His birth parents were first generation unmarried Italian-American teenagers, who gave him up for adoption. He grew up in Manhattan, an only child. His father died while he was in college. David and Mary remained close to his widowed mother.
Mary’s Philadelphia Quaker family could trace both sides all the way back to the early eighteenth century. In fact, Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American flag, was an aunt, eight or nine generations removed.
Since their college days, the Fergusons reliably supported popular left-wing causes from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to the women’s liberation and the nuclear disarmament movements of the 1970s. Although she probably never mentioned it, Mary did have a conflict of interest with respect to one of the anti-war movement’s most controversial activities.
Attending a giant protest in Central Park, Mary saw several people gleefully burning an American flag. She was very troubled by the flag-burning, but also quite conflicted since she fervently hated what America was doing in Vietnam. A friend overheard Mary asking herself again and again, “What would Betsy do?”
Evidently, Mary’s peace-loving Quaker background trumped her patriotic family pride. While in her heart, she could not approve the burning of our flag, she also could not approve the despicable acts our nation was committing in its name. Smiling, she whispered, “Thank you, Betsy! Thank you!” Evidently Aunt Betsy would have concluded that burning children with napalm was a lot worse than burning her flag.
* * *
Every New Year’s eve since the early 1960s, the Fergusons would host a party. And year by year, these shindigs seemed to grow larger. Pretty soon, the back apartment was needed to accommodate the overflow. And, of course, David would very solicitously ask after their guests needs, while Mary provided for them.
One year I invited my friend Barbara, a born satirist. It didn’t take long for a group to form around her as she did parrot imitations. “Squawk! Squawk! Box 749! Box 749!... Squawk! Squawk! I’m an editor!... I’m literary! Squawk! Squawk! I’m published in Box 749!”
Everyone was laughing, even David. Mary, who probably would have enjoyed Barbara’s performance, was sound asleep, lying on a pile of coats in the bedroom.
Suddenly there was a crashing sound in the kitchenette.
“Squawk! Squawk! Just leave it! Squawk! Squawk! Mary’ll get it in the morning.”
* * *
But all good things must come to an end. In the late 1970s, Mary received a diagnosis of breast cancer, and underwent a course of radiation and chemotherapy. The cancer went into remission for a couple of years, during which Mary threw herself into a whirl of social activities, the most memorable of which was Irish folk dancing. Almost every weekend she would take part in ceilidhs (pronounced caylees) held all over the city.
But the cancer returned, and on January 2, 1982, Mary passed away.
David was devastated. They had been almost inseparable. And from a very practical standpoint, who would take care of him?
But Mary had had a long time to make preparations. In addition to buying the two apartments, she had quietly purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of life insurance policies. David was well provided for.
Although the “Box” was nominally a quarterly, it came out at irregular intervals. From 1971 through 1980, there were seven or eight issues. A few weeks after Mary’s death, the Box’s editorial board resumed its weekly meetings. But there was no one to write the rejection letters, so it was reluctantly agreed to send form letters. After a few months, everyone agreed that without Mary, there no longer was a magazine.
Three months after her death, Mary’s friends and family arranged a memorial service at a Quaker meeting hall near Grammercy Park. One after another, people stood up, recalling her many kindnesses, her devotion to those she loved, and even to people she barely knew.
After about an hour, a very attractive middle-aged woman I had not seen before got up to speak. “My name is Claudia Frank. My husband and I were acquaintances of the Fergusons from the Church of Holy Apostles. The four of us volunteered at their soup kitchen.”
Her ten-year-old daughter had submitted a short story to Box 749. It was the first story she had ever written. But since her parents knew the Fergusons, she thought that maybe it had some chance of being published.
Mary wrote the rejection letter. Rachel cried as she read it. At first Claudia felt awful. But her daughter put the letter in her dresser drawer where she kept her favorite things, which she called her “treasures.” After Rachel left for school the next morning, Claudia read the letter. It was eight pages long, a lot longer than the story.
As Claudia read, she had to keep wiping her eyes. The letter was full of praise and encouragement. Mary wished Box 749 had had enough room for the story, and that she was amazed that someone so young could write so beautifully. Mary closed by asking the girl to keep writing. She looked forward to reading more of her stories.
Rachel kept the letter in her drawer, and occasionally Claudia would see her rereading it. From time to time, when she was putting her daughter’s fresh laundry back in her dresser, she glanced in the drawer and saw the letter. Over the years, the pages became more and more worn and creased.
Claudia and her husband had heard about the memorial service just the other day. Rachel would have come with them, but she was away at college.
Then the idea hit her: she would bring Mary’s letter to the service! She looked in the dresser drawer, but the letter was gone. She frantically searched Rachel’s room, and then her husband joined her in looking all over the apartment. But they couldn’t find it.
Claudia looked around at the crowd. “I wish I had been able to read Mary’s letter to you. I wanted you to hear the consoling words she wrote to a disappointed ten-year old. I can’t do that now. But I’ll try to convey how much those words still mean to a young woman.
“I called Rachel last night several times before I was finally able to reach her. I blurted out how frantically we had been searching for Mary’s letter. You can imagine my relief when she said, ‘Relax, Mom! I have the letter right here.’ At that instant I realized just how much Mary’s words had meant to my daughter. As if she read my thoughts, she said, ‘I want to have her letter with me whenever I need Mary’s help’.”
Copyright © 2016 by Steve Slavin