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Mary Poppins returns

Marie with the writer's brother Johnny in Central Park, circa 1960
Courtesy of Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Marie with the writer's brother Johnny in Central Park, circa 1960

If the holidays are for friends and family then there was no better way to spend it than visiting a person as responsible for raising me as my parents. My younger brothers and I never referred to Marie O’Grady as our nanny. She was our “nurse.” She joined the family when I was two years old and left to get married when I was ten. If those are the Wonder years, at least according to formative 1960’s TV bread commercial, then Marie did as much to bake the loaf as anybody else.

Yet after she left I didn’t see her again for almost sixty years. I’d occasionally search for her online but always came up cold; until the day in 2019 I opened Facebook and discovered a message from Marie’s daughter Tricia.

“My mother was a nanny in the 1960’s,” it began and went on to give Marie’s maiden and married names. Tricia revealed that her mother was 86 years old and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. She added, “She has mentioned your family and working for your mother with fond memories.”

Unfortunately, my mother, Nellie, passed away before a reunion could be arranged. It was a shame because she would have loved to see Marie again. Also, because in a subsequent email Tricia confided that her mother and Tricia’s brother Tom frequently passed my mother’s apartment on their way to walks in Central Park. “Ever the private woman,” Tricia explained, “she would never think to intrude.”

Marie and I eventually reunited in March, 2019 as I was in the process of cleaning out my parents’ apartment. She was somewhat slowed by Parkinson’s but the kindness I recalled from my childhood remained as radiant as ever. When Marie returned to Ireland for six months in 1958 I broke out in a rash that a dermatologist attributed to heartbreak. It subsided only when Marie returned.

Tricia and I compared notes about the way we were raised by the same person. Our conversation offered me insights I couldn’t have achieved as a child. Tricia revealed that some of the other mothers at their playground were skeptical of the freedom her mother gave her and her younger brothers; of Marie’s self-confidently intuitive, almost subversive methods of child-rearing.

That resonated with me. In Central Park we were free to roam while Marie gossiped with her fellow nannies on a nearby bench. What was easily missed was that she always kept an eye on us; she always knew where we were and what we were up to.

I don’t recall who brought up the idea of Mary Poppins, Tricia or me. But once it bobbed to the surface it all made sense. Marie O’Grady was Mary Poppins come to life. She was strict but flexible. She made you adhere to routines while leaving room for magic. You never doubted her love.

Marie’s influence was all the more significant because my mother rarely made an appearance before noon and my father embraced parenthood reluctantly. If my personality made room for awe and mystery Marie is as responsible as anyone.

A deeply religious woman, the first question she asked me when we saw each other again was whether I still said the Lord’s Prayer? She’d taught it to me as a child and we used to recite it together at bedtime. I hated to disillusion her but I was forced to admit that I no longer said the prayer on a regular basis.

The pandemic upset our plans for a second visit. Also, Marie suffered a series of medical setbacks in addition to Parkinson’s. Infections. Broken bones. Symptoms of a stroke. But now at ninety years old, to the amazement of her doctors and caregivers, she keeps bouncing back. The most likely explanation for her resilience is that prayer works. Somebody is looking down on her.

Tricia says that her mother looks forward to my visits. I’ve made a couple of them to the East Side apartment she shares with Tricia. This week I brought along my computer to show Marie childhood 16mm home movies that I’d recently had digitized. Unsurprisingly, Marie, in her starched white uniform, plays a prominent role in them.

I’ve also shared mentions of Marie from my mother’s diary. It starts the day she joined our family in 1955 and includes her marriage in the Bronx to Tricia’s father Tom in May, 1962. My younger brother Johnny, six years old at the time, summed up our sadness that Marie was leaving us as we reached the head of the receiving line. “I like Marie,” he announced. “But I don’t like you, Tom.”

As a writer you’re tempted to articulate your emotions; at least to give it a try. Sixty years is a long hiatus for a relationship to endure. But I definitely feel something special for Marie. An affection that runs wide and deep. Just how deep is hard for me to measure, let alone describe.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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