My Aunt Mary wrote for The Lowell Sun for seventy-six years. She started while still a high school girl… under pen names… looong before women commonly reported for newspapers. She and my Uncle Charles G Sampas, a mild mannered executive news editor from a great historic city’s newspaper, were my God Parents. Often glued to Mary’s side, I recall The Sun as a chaotic place full of screaming, sweaty reporters desperate to read the ribbons spewed forth from the wire services. I still smell the ink and burnt coffee, and hear the deafening noise of the printing machines. “It’s a lot of work to bring news to the people,” she told me.
And remember those phones that had wires attached to walls? Mary Sampas was attached to one of those… always tucked under an ear, scribbling notes and trading in gossip and fact as she covered the glamorous stars of old Hollywood, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, David Niven, many others. Mary and Charlie even accompanied the Kennedys on their Paris trip with Charles de Gaulle and then off to Vienna for the Khrushchev talks. Even Jackie called on Mary for the inside scoop.
She slept late… till the calls began… then the typing would start. Evenings were usually spent socializing with those who were known to be in the know. Hers was a world of endless working parties with artists, writers or prominent Democrats. With non-stop, indefatigable charm and the brain of a word processor she would pursue secrets, discover, verify. What was show and what remained hidden in the backroom smoke?
She brought me to my first ballet when I’d just turned eleven. After the captivating magic and beauty on stage I decided, right there, that I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. She asked me if I’d like to see the ballerinas up close. I thought I was the luckiest girl alive as we sauntered behind the curtains with press pass in hand. But I was struck by the naked authenticity of costumes tossed, the smell of sweat, cold cream and wilting rose. This was typical Mary, don’t get lost in this dream, this takes a lifetime of hard work and practice. Search for the story behind the story, find what’s real.
It wasn’t that she set out expose the chaotic core trapped in the center of every bright star; she just sought truth and didn’t treat children like babies. I don’t think she could have read a fairytale without somehow exposing the dust between pages. Even during the Camelot sparkle of the Kennedy years I knew about the telling fingernails, bitten down to the quick and smartly hidden under Jackie’s gloves.
She loved the famous, the talented, and the informed, filled her life and home with them yet she intellectually cartwheeled over most. The glamorous and entertaining Mary possessed the most astute mind in the room and damn if she didn’t know that it was true. I went to some of those parties full of important people but I, too young to know that this wasn’t normalcy, usually fell asleep in her bed.
Aunt Mary’s last party was her grand finale. Kidney failure and she’d refused treatment. Saints Medical Center gave Her Majesty the largest possible room where she was surrounded by friends, loved ones and family, where fans came to pay their respects to a most beloved woman, toasted the One who had provided a lifetime of the beautiful usage of language. From her hospital bed she wrote her last piece for the paper.
She called to say good bye. I could hear Frank Sinatra music playing faintly behind her. I, unwilling to let go, asked her if she thought dialysis would really be so terribly bad.
“Yes it would,” she said, yet another truth. “They say it won’t hurt but it always does.”
She told me how much she loved me and I, with tears welling, tried to convey to her what she meant to me and what an honor it was to have her in my life. I wanted to be there with her but there was a Nor-eastern blizzard in the forcast. I had a sprained ankle and my car needed breaks.
It was Classic Mary and the last truth she told me before she died. “You know,” she said, “you were always an awful lot of work.” I was, indeed, and smiles still linger on the tears of my memory. On January 12th, 2011, just over 5 years ago and at age 93, the Great Woman passed onward.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old, familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always did.
January 8th, 2016
Dear Auntie Mary,
You know… you could be a lot of work too,
But I would change nothing… because I had you.
PS: You always loved my bad poetry.