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Maria


I was working on my laptop in the courtyard off our hallway — where her apartment and my office sat almost side by side — when she came out wielding a large pair of scissors. "Maria, what in the world are you going to do with those?!" I asked. She smiled mischievously and started very ungracefully dragging her walker through the densely overgrown and wildly unkempt plot of former garden space a few feet outside our shared window. I couldn't see her through the tangles of weeds and piles of dry dirt but heard her rustling around and grunting with effort. A few moments later Maria emerged, three perfect roses held tight in a now slightly bloody palm. "I got them!" she exclaimed in her thick European accent (English was her fourth language, she reminded me often). She was probably the only person on campus — groundskeepers and residents alike — who'd thought, much less believed and encouraged into fruition, that something might blossom in that abandoned plot of dirt. While we all passed by it everyday not paying it any attention, Maria had silently kept her eye on the secret garden, willing it to produce something beautiful. And it did. And when those roses bloomed, she'd be damned not to clip them to put in a vase in her apartment, thorns and all.


Maria was one of my favorite people to hang out with. Her most often said word was "no" but always with a cheeky smile and laugh. (One day I made stickers to put on residents' mirrors with their most used catch phrase, so they could see it every morning when they got ready. For one of Maria's neighbors, I decided on "You look fabulous today!" — it's still on her mirror and greets her every morning. For Maria, she and I laughed that her catchphrase was "No." We decided not to decorate the mirror with that, though.) If I ever tried to compliment her — on her favorite silk scarf, for example — she'd get angry at me and shake her head. "I do not look good in this! Don't say that!" But for someone who wanted to seem tough, she was such a bright light. Everyone on staff considered her a friend; one of us.


She loved beautiful things. The roses, decadently decorated cakes and pastries that she'd make (hating when I'd look through photos of her creations, not allowing a single kind word). She had a beautiful, detailed dollhouse in her studio apartment that she'd made decades and decades ago, every tiny room decorated to perfection. She had the most beautiful original artwork hanging on the four walls of her efficiency apartment, a windowsill lined with lovingly cared for greenery.


When she was isolated during the pandemic and couldn't leave her room, I cut out dozens of colorful hearts and taped them on the outside of her window as a reminder that she was loved. I'd go each afternoon to the window to wave, and even mid-pandemic she'd smile back the most glorious, contented grin. I'd think "Wow, she's in such good spirits for being on COVID lockdown!" I'd walk away from the window then minutes later hear an aide down the hall, "Maria, what are you doing walking the halls? You're supposed to be in your apartment!" No wonder she'd smile at me through the window – she knew she was following no one's rules but her own! She was the sweetest, and she was cheeky, and she was stubborn. Her daughter Catherine once told me a story about when her mom was previously living in a different senior community, Catherine had gone to Italy for vacation. By the time she returned home from her trip and went to visit her Mom, Maria was gone. The minute Catherine had boarded her flight, Maria had picked up the phone and called a moving company, convincing them not only to move her possessions out, but to let her hitch a ride in the moving van too.


Maria was also smart. Not only did she speak four different languages, her favorite channel on TV was MSNBC and she always had a book in her hands. Maria loved to read. Specifically, Maria loved to read Nicholas Sparks books. In fact, she'd read the same book multiple times, cycling through the collection in the library time and time again. Her favorite Nicholas Sparks book had a big yellow rose on the front cover, just like the ones Maria had cut from the courtyard. When I picture her, I see her with that book.


A lot of things Maria wanted (to leave the senior living community and move into a cottage in Hungary, for example) weren't feasible. But some desires — even those unspoken, just witnessed through time spent together — were more possible. Maria just wanted to see beautiful things. She longed to experience beauty. The yellow roses. The hearts on her window panes. The faces of her granddaughters who she adored. The sunlight streaming through the library window, warming her back as she sat in her favorite reading chair.


She relentlessly sought out beauty.


She knew what she wanted and didn't let much get in her way.


I'd like to be like that. Not letting small wonders pass me by; but scooping them up and clutching them tight, thorns and all.




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