Our Hands Hold the Strength – Letters from Mary Jane

Mom and Aunt Mary Jane.jpgMy notation on the top of the letter pile read, “Letters from Aunt Mary Jane.”

The first day I spent alone following the death of my Cavalier King Charles, the often duplicated but never imitated Enzo, I roamed the streets of OTR at 6:30 a.m., wondering how far my feet would carry me before I had to scrape my heart off the sidewalk and hobble home.

I made a few phone calls, one to the pet cemetery for cremation. I texted a few friends. I emailed some work colleagues on mindless tasks. I delved into the opening chapter of my novel in progress because, on Enzo’s last morning, I had a breakthrough moment that was a story for another time.

When afternoon rolled around, I sifted through the piles of bills and papers that had accumulated for the four days since my dog’s death. The stack of letters “from Mary Jane” bound in a red rubber band acted as a paperweight to the folder that contained notes for my novel.

I would have to remove the paperweight to get to the notes or—I would have to finally do something with the letters.

Mary Jane, or Aunt Mary Jane, and my mother had been friends since their days in Lorain as young women, working at Magic Chef. Mary Jane had a wicked sense of humor and, had she possessed red hair, she could have easily been a stand-in for Lucille Ball, humor wise. But, Mary Jane was Italian, and her hair ran as thick and black as midnight oil. Sometimes she spoke with a lisp slipped into her words, but always she pronounced my father’s name with proper Italian accent, “Et-tór-eh.”

But what I loved most about Mary Jane was how she adored my mother. Mom never enjoyed the bond of sisters, and Mary Jane had four. Long after giving birth to their children, my mother continued to gravitate to Mary Jane for her advice and wisdom on girls and on sisters, as Mom was now raising four willful young women.

Mary Jane was married to Uncle Don. Don was a bit round in the face and belly and was a whimsical sort of man. Both of them were tall, and the two of them made quite the pair, in contrast to my shorter parents.

Sometime in the late 1980’s or early 90’s, Mary Jane and Don moved to Maryland. Don would be closer to his work in D.C. under the Secretary of Education and Mary Jane took a position at the Library of Congress.

But Mary Jane and Don were always part of our life, so much they were aunt and uncle, or comare or cumma (cum-mà) and compare or cumpa (cum‧pà) in Italian parlance which meant to co-mother or co-father. We had a collection of aunts and uncles, co-mothers and fathers, and godfathers and godmothers – not all related. It was better that way.

Long after I moved from Amherst, my parents made road trips to Waldorf, Maryland, to visit with Mary Jane and Don. It was then Mary Jane fell into symptoms of a palsy for which she battled a number of years.

I’m an admitted Google stalker. I can find anyone in the Internet, which was not much of a feat these days. But it also required I recall where they lived, what state or city, the names of their kids who were much older than my siblings and I, and what their professions might now be.

So, I started with Donald Berens of Maryland. Then Mary Jane Berens of Lorain, Ohio. I realized that wasn’t her maiden name so I might not get to far with that. I went with Don Berens of Maryland. In the white pages, I found an A. in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. I entered that information into the search engine and came up with a physician of that name practicing in that location that could have been their son. When I called the number and spoke to the receptionist, I told her my story.

Dr. Berens’ mother and my mother were best friends. My mother was still living in a memory care home (that may have been too much information, but I went on), but I found letters Dr. Berens’ mother wrote to mine and thought he and his sister (I remembered her name was Carole) should have them. Would he receive personal mail at his office?

“Oh my, that’s so touching. Yes, he would,” she said.”

She was smart enough to ask where the return address would come from so she wouldn’t pitch the envelope. At first, I said, “Cincinnati. Annette Wick. Wait, he would know Januzzi. So I’ll add Januzzi.”


“Great I’ll slide this in the mail slot today,” I said and hung up, now possessed with an added level of enthusiasm.

Then came the hard part. I hadn’t read the letters, any of them. The missives felt personal. They were personal. But if I was sending them to Mary Jane’s children, certainly, I, as the child of the mother on the original receiving end, also had an obligation or right to know what they contained.

The 26 letters were dated from February of 2003 through August of 2004. Much had transpired in our family in those years, such as I was dating Mark, after Devin’s death in 2000. My sister, Beth, was delivering Gia in January of 2004. All of Mom’s grandsons were growing fast and soon two granddaughters would join the brood.

I made copies of the letters, some hand-written and some typed out, and stuffed the originals, with a handwritten card into a padded envelope. I needed the distraction so I rode my bike to the Post office and sent them off with love and care. As I rode back along the bustling streets of Over-the-Rhine, I considered veering to Findlay Market for a sandwich, stopping there so I wouldn’t eat alone at home. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

The house was empty when I returned. For the past few months, Enzo and I always ate “lunch” together because he took medications at noon, and would need to pee an hour later, for certain. For my lunch now, I chopped up a salad resembling something Greek with feta and olives.

The stack of copied letters lay in front of me and I started to read.

Then underlined and starred.

And laughed. And reread a few parts. And made question marks.

I planned to send the copies later to my siblings though the papers would be marked up with my points of lights.

I finished reading the collections of letters, while seated on the window seat where Enzo always took in the sun to the detriment of the already-pocked marked reclaimed wood.

And I cried.

I cried for the mother who thought I, a single mother, shouldn’t have gone to Key West with my girlfriends and left my six-year-old in the care of Mom and Dad. For the mother who was in much pain over Thanksgiving because of her arthritis, but still put forth her best meal. She would have a hip replacement a year later.

I wept for the words my mother must have shared with Mary Jane, evidenced by the lines Mary Jane wrote back. And I wept for Mary Jane, and how hard she had to work to communicate, once her palsy set in, including learning how to use electronic devices, instead of handwritten and type-written notes. This from a woman who never “shut up,” and that was a compliment when it came out of my mother’s mouth.

And finally, I cried because I could not take these letters to Mom.

Sure, I could have read them to her. And sometimes, I mentioned Mary Jane’s name to Mom, if someone passed by us who reminded me of her. And Mom listened, for the most, before moseying off.

But Mom wouldn’t remember the words and the makeup and the emotions behind the words and the backstory behind the words Mary Jane returned to Mom.

“Jean, we try to spare our kids so much pain but I guess we have to let them experience that pain and that is the way they learn and remember the experience.” Mary Jane wrote, following a paragraph about cooking and Easter and Italian sausage.

A gift such as this was like a two-way mirror. The letters offered a glimpse of my mother’s admonishments for traveling without children, her concerns for me after Devin died, when I met Mark (“that completes the picture”), and her love for my niece, Gia, (“we think she is all Januzzi”), newborn at that time. Her profound belief in my sister’s Laura’s beauty and talents, which her talents but not her innate beauty have now been lost. The adoration Mom had for my sister-in-law Kim, and the joys my sister, Jeanne, brought into the lives of my parents.

There weren’t a lot of mentions of my father, which doesn’t mean anything, but Mary Jane was quick to point out how well Don took care of her, but also drove her nuts by “getting mud all over the floor.” There were Mary Jane’s own lists of gifts and challenges with her children.

Most of all, Mary Jane detailed the struggles with her disease. “I felt rejuvenated after speaking to a medical class and like I had accomplished something instead of sitting at home and feeling worthless and lonely.”

I imagined my mother reading those words—she was the most capable holder of words, somehow, the formulation of consonants and vowels never tore her apart, only made her stronger, and able to carry more and more words, like a native’s woven basket.

The lines I loved best were about how much Mary Jane missed mom, and of course, my mother’s cooking, with tips on meatballs, which WILL NOT be revealed.

Mary Jane didn’t save Mom’s letters. In one letter, she mentioned, “I keep a letter until I know I’ve written back.”

Mom and Aunt Mary JaneBut that was okay. I loved viewing my mother through the lens of someone else’s words. It added comfort to my gloomy day. It added another dimension to a mother who was still a mystery, and probably was before hand.

“I was pleased my hand held the strength to finish the letter,” Mary Jane wrote in one of the last one letters my mom saved.

The letters stopped in August, 2004 and Mary Jane died in March, 2005. There was no indication as to why the letters ceased coming, but in those last seven months, Mary Jane’s palsy most likely won out over her mind as well.

Though I had included all my contact information, I never heard back from Mary Jane’s son. After some time, I went “back to the Google,” as we say in our family, and researched few more names related to Mary Jane. I discovered a granddaughter, J., who was filled with gratitude (and probably creeped out) for connecting with her.

“Don is doing well having just turned 90 this past April. He is every bit as funny and warm as he always has been.

I may not remember this story correctly, but I have a memory of a lady writing me a letter with a beautiful handkerchief for the day of my wedding. Was that your mother? 

I was so fortunate to have my grandparents as prominent fixtures in my life. Mary Jane was a wonderful woman, ahead of her time, always pushing me and reminding me that my efforts were for my future and to leave the men on the sidelines. Interestingly enough, that is a prime reason why I never changed my last name and why you were able to find me 🙂.”

I resent a package of copied letters to J., along with photos of Mom with Mary Jane, in their late 20’s and late 70’s. I hoped that set of letters found a home in the Berens’ family, and perhaps Uncle Don relished in his wife’s lasting words.

I know I did.

Mary Jane was that same woman to her granddaughter that she was to my mother. Ahead of her time.

“Jean, I really miss talking to you,” Mary Jane wrote in one of her last notes and, as I read it, heard her saying those words in a raspy voice.

In my ears, my mother’s honey tone answered back, “Mary Jane, I know what you mean.”

Mom and Aunt Mary Jane were both gone. But they were laughing, no cackling, now, together. Theirs was a rare friendship indeed. And to them, I say, “I know. I know, too.”



  1. This piece speaks to the power of friendship: and what dear friends they were! This is a beautiful and heart-warming essay, Annette. Gratitude.


  2. What a wonderful glimpse at true friendship. I’m glad you read the letters and passed them on as well as shared them with us.


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