Mary Ellen was larger than life. She did nothing halfway and rarely hesitated to express her opinion. She was a teacher, director, collaborator, consultant and all-around creative genius. My memories of her are random:
Finding her at a fundraiser, deep in conversation with Peter Ustinov.
Coordinating the table decorations for my wedding reception.
Helping her with a garage sale after her mother died.
Getting really drunk one night after work and finding ourselves at a meeting of the Chicago Art Deco Society, which we promptly joined.
Leaving the Printers Row Book Fair and walking over to the Fine Arts Theater to see Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s my favorite Shakespearean play, and I think of that day every time I watch the movie.
She knew everyone: celebrities, politicians, journeymen actors. She taught a lot of them, and the kid in her shared her love of the arts with hundreds, no, probably thousands of children over the years.
While others have said she called them her “babies”, she never called me that. I would express an opinion or tell and a story and her response was often “you wild woman, you.” Rarely was that assessment justified.
Once, and only once, I felt her wrath. We both felt justified in our opinions and neither of us backed down. But I did my best to never provoke that glare again.
What I’ll miss, though, is her laugh: always full-out, never a polite giggle. The kind of laugh that elicits stares from more proper folks. Trust me: she didn’t give a damn if anyone stared.
I went to her wake Wednesday night with great trepidation. I was having a hard time with the shock of her death and the lack of communication between us in recent years.
The funeral parlor was jammed, all three rooms, mostly with parents and children who were going to perform as part of the service. Most of the photos on display were of and from her students; nothing representing most of the times we shared. I walked from room to room, and when I realized there was no casket, my first reaction was “she’s not here.”
I couldn’t stay for the service; I was on my way out of town. Two people I knew from the “old days” were going to speak, but they weren’t there yet. In fact, no one was there from those early days.
Maybe they were out of town, or there were extenuating circumstances that prevented them from attending. Maybe they arrived after I left.
But I’ve never felt so alone at a wake, despite being surrounded by probably two hundred people. My husband joined me, but after a few minutes, and saying hello to the priest who would lead the prayers, I left. I felt like I didn’t belong.
I’m hoping the arts community will hold something larger, grander, on a scale worthy of Mary Ellen at a future date. She deserves it.
For me, I’ll have to find a way to say my goodbyes another way. I don’t know how yet, but I do know one thing: there will be laughing.