To celebrate Mary Wood’s life is to celebrate a life worth emulation: for her friendship, her wit, her gifts to the culture of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, her vision, her political savvy, and her présence.
At the beginning she was my student, then my friend, and far from the end she became my teacher: Her sense of balance and judgment always exceeded mine, but it was my pleasure (as it might have been for you) to try to keep pace. In her own difficult times I never saw her grimace — in fact, I doubt that any of us in the orbit of her life ever saw that expression, and it was only after Donald Trump became President that I saw it at all, and then it was usually followed by understated contempt and derision.
Long before either of us understood the terms of our mortality, we would swap final words by various authors, which we would repeat in edited forms by way of saying à bientôt (meaning “See you later”; Mary eschewed au revoir as goodbye, not what she had in mind).
Mary’s favorite quotation was Oscar Wilde’s quip as he lay dying in a Paris hotel; “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” Mine was W.B. Yeats in the south of France when he heard that his malady was arteriosclerosis in an antique frame. “My god it scans,” Yeats said. And died.
My habit over the years was to take Mary my copies of the New Yorker with something dog-eared I thought she might enjoy. To visit her a few days later was to visit a reader who had not only two or three books to recommend, but to have finished the New Yorkers should I want to pass them on. In her later years, she’d remark that she was at the mercy of an active brain being hauled around by a decrepit body. I said my problem was an active body on top of which was a disheveled mind.
Among her gifts to the college is the endowment of the room in which this event is being held: The Mary Wood Readers Room. Douglass Cater, the president when the room was dedicated, worried aloud what Betty Casey might think about having room named for Mary inside a house named by Betty. It was my task to ask Betty, who thought it was just fine. Which has me observe how much our literary culture at Washington College owes to women: Sophie Kerr, Betty Casey, Maureen Jacoby, and Mary Wood. Among them, they have given Washington College students many rooms of their own.
A few days before Mary died, I called to ask how she felt. “Medium,” she said. And we both laughed.
Mary, now in your spirit world, be careful about rooms with ugly wall paper, and I will take what care I can of my antique frame.. à bientôt.
Robert Day was founder and first director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House. Along with Meredith Davies Hadaway, Richard Harwood, and Mike Kaylor, he founded the Literary House Press. He is the author of twelve books, including “The ABCs of Enlightenment: A Memoir of Learning and Teaching” that features Washington College.