My friend Mary has died. She was 99. Whenever I visited, I'd ask, "How old are you now?" And after she'd answer, I'd always say, "Oh for God's sake." It scarcely seemed possible that someone with such an agile and nimble mind, and who moved pretty briskly around her home, could be so terribly old. And now it scarcely seems possible that she has died.
My friend Mary was a new friend. Her daughter made the introductions in 2017. I was appearing at a literary festival and afterwards was sitting at a table to sign copies of my latest book. The queue went out the door – the table was right by the door – while I sat and inscribed. A woman said, "Can you make it out to my mum?" And then she told a story. When she finished, I said, "Here's my address. Please can you ask her to write me a letter?"
My friend Mary had five children – the oldest was born in 1939 – and lived by herself in Christchurch. In her first letter, she put into her own words the story that her daughter had told at the book signing: "I had just received your book Fool's Paradise in 2011 when my beloved city was wiped out by the earthquakes. I read that book through the shuddering nights for that year and it got me through them so thank you."
My friend Mary had taken comfort or found an escape or something like that from my writing, and I tried to imagine it: this small, wise, happy woman, reading my first book – Fool's Paradise included celebrations of tearooms, evocations of childhood, odes to the filth and beauty of mangroves – and kind of clinging to it, in the dark, during that terrible time which took lives and destroyed homes. I couldn't imagine it. But I was awed and grateful.
My friend Mary had her own home destroyed by the quakes. "My old house where I lived for 74 years had to be demolished." Her son-in-law built her a new home. "They sent it to the same address – lights flashing etc. It takes some getting used to. I still wonder where the doors are." I visited whenever I was in Christchurch. She'd make tea and bring out biscuits. She was a lovely, funny person, but there was a sadness about her. She talked about her oldest son, who had died at 51. "Poor old Tony," she said. She pointed to a painting on her wall, and said, "That's one of his." I looked at it and said, "Hang on."
My friend Mary was the mother of a genius. I'd met Tony Fomison once, in the 1980s; he came to Wellington with a mutual friend, Garth Cartwright, and we called on writer Ian Wedde at his home above Balaena Bay. Everyone talked a lot. Fomison was small, cryptic, damaged. Wedde later wrote a sketch about him, which included a childhood memory: "Julia [Fomison's sister] remembered him in his room off the kitchen at 154 Tancred St 'scribbling away [in] his little cave'. Here he developed a meticulous habit of drawing."
My friend Mary loved talking about her children ("Anna is a dear girl," she wrote of the daughter who made the introductions, "she rings every day") but with a kind of reserve about her youngest son. He was a recluse and she hadn't seen him for about 30 years when he died in 2018. A discovery was made on his deathbed: he had a son, now in his 30s. He was visiting Mary for the first time – he'd gone through his whole life without any notion he had a grandmother - when I happened to pop by. "I don't usually live amidst such drama," she later wrote in a letter. She seemed to take it all in her stride. She was extremely observant; she watched, she listened, she passed little or no judgment.
My friend Mary died at her Tancred St home on April 3. The virus had nothing to do with it but the lockdown prevented a farewell. "Mum didn't want a funeral," her daughter emailed. The family was going to have one anyway. Everyone adored her. "Well, she trumped us on that one because we couldn't organise a thing." My condolences to the family. Life will be poorer without their splendid matriarch. Anna added, "Mum reread your books, again and again, every night before she went to sleep." I loved my friend Mary.