As shoppers rush Tallahassee’s biggest mall on Black Friday, they will likely pass a shop called the American Folk Art Museum and Gallery. Most will have no clue that the work of the artist inside, Mary Proctor, is also held in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Met. This is the story of the artist they call Missionary Mary, a tale still unfolding, about how a woman can transform a lifetime of pain into hope, joy and gratitude (a lesson that seems more comforting today than it did even a week ago).

By Katherine Webb-Hehn | Photographs by Mark Wallheiser

 
 

I admit it. I thought I’d drive to Tallahassee to visit Mary Proctor as if I were on some spiritual journey, where I’d be graced by her magnetic presence and mystical wisdom, then return home, my infant son glowing on my newly enlightened hip.

Write, wait for publication; wave away compliments with a demure smile.

But expecting a black artist to shine light on a white woman’s life to make for a good essay is stereotypical at best, racist at worst, and it’s as careless as telling Mary’s story as it’s been told before, like a fairytale — “Triumph Over Tragedy in American Folk Art!” I was really setting out to discover some capital-T truth about who Mary is and why her art breeds kindred with her fellow Southerners.

Those who know anything about the Florida-based artist are already aware she began painting in the mid-1990s after a house fire killed her beloved grandmother, an aunt and an uncle. Her husband, Tyrone, found her that night beneath a tree, wailing inconsolably as the rescue crew shoveled bones from the ash. He brought his wife home, watching helplessly as she spent the next month fasting, praying and pleading for guidance on how to move forward in a life already scarred by what she calls “heartbreaks.”

“Paint the way,” Mary heard on the 30th day of fasting. And so she began.

Taking three doors, Mary painted portraits of each of her lost family members, doing so, she believed, under the instruction of the Almighty. A few weeks later, after she put the doors like a memorial in her front yard on Woodville Highway on the outskirts of town, Tricia Collins “appeared.” A critic and curator originally from Tallahassee, Tricia offered Mary $5,000 to take the doors back to her gallery in New York.

“I didn’t even know what ‘folk’ art was,” Mary would later say. That day, she gave her name as “Missionary” Mary, heeding the call to spread the Good Word.

Don’t ignore signs, Mary likes to say.


 
 

Driving south from Birmingham to Tallahassee in a stereotypically blue station wagon, my husband and 3-month-old son in tow, NPR on the dial, I was still feeling proud of my short-sighted “spiritual” plan when we stopped at Rock Bottom, a boarded-up bar in Montgomery (its old sign still promising “Food. Beer. Fun.” as the Statue of Liberty lifts a frosted mug in her hand). I nursed my son in the shade of a cigarette butt-littered patio and went over questions for Mary: How was her work influenced by loss; family; Southern, black or female identity; literal and metaphorical salvaging? Did she create something every day for herself, for an audience, for God? Did that matter?

I was on my way to interview an artist whose work I admire, a woman who upholds long-held cultural traditions, while using her art to heal, to connect and to communicate the philosophical and religious principles of a purposefully simple life. That life, she says, is all about raising a family, honoring God and preserving the dead — all the while making a living as an artist. How did she share herself without exploiting herself? Could she? Can any of us?

If this meeting were anything like our last, Mary would have questions, too. I’d ask, and she’d counter in a singsong Southern voice, that familiar lilt my own grandmother and mother hold in their mouths, too, but was somehow lost in my suburban-washed generation. Mary does that thing matriarchs do while entertaining audiences at holiday meals. She’s disarming, charming. One minute, whispering as if this is all hush-hush between us, the next hollering as if a sermon’s coming on.

What do you see in your work?

“I see the LARD! You see it? The joy? This the world I wanna surround myself with!”

What matters in your everyday life?
“Gaw-ud. Family. My artwork. What matters to you, li’l’ mama?”

 
 

Mary is, among many things, a show woman. But don’t let this fool you. She watches you intensely as she performs. Her eyes, when not shaded by dark glasses, are crescent sharp, fixed on yours if you’re willing to return the intense contact. It’s clear she’s curious about our happiness, our sense of identity, what moves us. And by us, I mean you, me, her, everybody. I figured she’d want to know where I’d been since we last met.

Leaving Rock Bottom, I stuffed a dirty diaper into an old to-go cup of coffee, and we merged back into traffic. Driving into the night along the small-town Alabama highways littered with abandoned nut shops, dive bars and log cabins, we missed turns as we tried mightily to keep our son asleep, using our knuckles as pacifiers, constantly and desperately shhhh-ing — my husband’s elbow rocking the car seat as if he might nudge the boy back to dreamland. Deer watched in moonlit stillness from ditches. Drivers who actually knew where they were going passed us, gracefully, snaking along the yellow paint.

We arrived in Tallahassee around midnight, our boy’s hungry mouth wide like a baby bird crying, and found our host’s rental behind a pink and white Victorian that serves as a new age healing center. When he first moved in, he told us as we unloaded the car, he’d return from campus to find long-haired Baby Boomers in head-to-toe hemp, foraging in the shared lawn. For what, he never found out.

At least we weren’t the only ones in town on a spiritual journey.


 
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So here’s the thing. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe a pull-the-curtain-back peek into Mary’s mind. But when we first met, something happened. (That word, of course, means anything, but I don’t really know what else to say.) Something happened.

We met two years ago in Northport, Alabama, at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. I’d recently left newspaper and teaching gigs to take what I thought was a more stable job in marketing. I was newly married with a newly sick parent, hankering to start my own family despite being terrified of another breed of responsibility.

Entering her booth, I picked up a wooden statue that wasn’t exactly cow-shaped but plainly said in block print, “When I see a cow, I feel content.” Mary let out one of those I-know-what’s-what laughs. She wasn’t smug, though, when she asked, “Not content, baby?”

Sitting at the end of the booth, Mary was all sunglasses, headphones, glitter and gold, like an awkwardly disguised celebrity attempting but not quite passing as one of us. She was painting, head held low to the colorful canvas, curls bobbing as her hand worked across its surface.

“Don’t know,” I told her. “But I like this cow.”

My husband’s mother stood beside me, and I thought of the stories she’d told of him as a baby in rural Mississippi, his father returning home from work each day to take him on rides to see the neighbors’ cows. I thought about time, the ways it passes, the ways it doesn’t.

“Come here,” Mary said as if she hadn’t heard me. “Tell me why ya ain’t content.”

And I did. A little. We talked about the everyday hustle of making a living, raising a family, dealing with your shit. She wasn’t shy about her faith or views on what makes a good life. “Know what the problem is? You ain’t figured out who’s in control. Give it up,” she said, lifting her hands to the deep blue October sky.

 
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Much to my granny’s dismay, that hand-it-over-to-Jesus philosophy has never resonated with me, but other stories or bits of advice Mary shared that day were uncannily, sometimes eerily, on point. At the risk of contradicting myself, or sounding like any number of middle-class amateur art collectors who loosely identify with or glamorize the work of rural artists, that moment felt nothing short of miraculous. I don’t know if I was in an emotionally susceptible state of mind, eager for a meaningful encounter, like a crowd of mourners waiting for the psychic to give them a message from the other side. Probably? When aren’t we?

And then there was this:

“Change coming,” she told me. “When you writing again, come on and see me.” She gave me the cow sculpture even though I didn’t have the full asking price. “Pay me back, and I’ll tell you my story.”

A year later, when we found out we were pregnant, I pitched Mary’s story to The Bitter Southerner. The day we brought our son home, I got the email asking me to take the trip.

Don’t ignore signs.


 
 

Mid-morning, Saturday, the second floor of the Centre of Tallahassee shopping mall, the American Folk Art Museum & Gallery: That’s where we found Mary. She was sitting, elbows propped on a folding table amid her daily tools, wood and canvas scraps, paints, brushes, a Bible. “Ready!” she said, leaning in. “Whatchu wanna know?”

The room buzzed with the tinny, rattling hum of a five-foot-wide industrial fan. The walls buzzed with Mary’s work, hundreds, possibly thousands, of creations from the past two decades filling the mall storefront — a space that last served, fittingly, as a church.

Mary fancies herself a collector. In this never-ending era of reality television, the sofa psychologist, surveying her gallery, might call her a hoarder: the stacked piles of wooden paintings, wire sculptures, cut tin prints, mixed-media formations made of everything from processed-food boxes to lottery tickets. Before becoming an artist, Mary ran a flea market on her property, that five-acre stretch on Woodville Highway. Later, she’d incorporate those salvaged items, often snagged from roadside trash, into her work. Before our visit, as we talked on the phone, she asked repeatedly if my son would be crawling yet, afraid he’d hurt himself, toppling over a tower of baby dolls.

All these things have meaning to Mary. She keeps around her reminders of what matters: “Gaw-ud. Fam-ly.”

 
 

That Woodville land later served as a maze-like gallery. If you’re up for it, there’s a grainy 2010 interview on YouTube where you can tour that space with Mary, who sounds like she’s talking to someone hard of hearing, comically loud. At one point, she points to a painting called “Virgin Mary,” and says, “That’s me!” with a belly laugh. “When I say virgin, I mean, I never painted before. So that’s a virgin, ain’t it? Virgin of the mind.”

Sometimes, you can’t tell if she’s messing with you or not.

She left that land for the shopping mall when things in the country felt too dangerous — “Drugs, man. Meth. Bear, or something, they calling it. Some boy was eating people he was so dang high. Eating ’em! So, I couldn’t stay out there. A woman, alone? It’s craziness.” Mary couldn’t recognize life out there, the ways of her childhood gone.

That’s when she moved to the air-conditioned comfort of the Centre of Tallahassee, a mall reminiscent of my own early ’90s childhood, all skylights and sad indoor plants, hostas and Hot Topic. She calls her place the American Folk Art Museum & Gallery. Next door, in a comic-book shop, a group of guys — clearly uninterested that it was opening weekend for FSU football — played Magic the Gathering and kept my husband company as he paced with our son. Down the broken escalator and below her gallery, in an ice cream shop, two bored teenagers pulled phones from their aprons and knew nothing of Mary above.

The few mall visitors I saw that day headed toward the movie theater to escape midday humidity or the football crowds. As shoppers rush into the Centre of Tallahassee next week for Black Friday deals, they will likely pass Mary’s peculiar storefront without a clue that the work of the artist inside is also held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We spent all afternoon and into the evening talking. I could have sat longer listening to her wax philosophical about theological interpretations or recount personal anecdotes like the run-in from the previous day with a lady over a buggy in a grocery store parking lot. All of Mary’s talk weaves the heady with the day-to-day. It’s hard sometimes to follow a train of thought with her going around the world to take you from point to point. But it’s a fun trip, too.

In the foyer of the gallery, she’d placed a collection jar to “keep the out the riffraff” so she could focus on her work. That day, no one paid the $3 fee to see beyond the entrance.

That didn’t bother Mary. Even though she thought the mall might bring more people to her work. Even though she mentioned, repeatedly, needing to make a few sales that weekend.

Mary is full of these beautiful contradictions. She loves everyone, but doesn’t want to put up with anyone’s shit. Her art is full of wisdom, preaching gratitude and love, but she’s admittedly skeptical of people’s motivations. She paints from messages she receives during her morning ritual of reading the Bible — “I don’t pray; I listen.” — but she also thinks about who might actually spend money on or benefit from a piece, crafting her images and language accordingly. One wall of the gallery is home to a Barbie series, dolls adhered to cut wood with “girl power” phrases painted above their plastic heads.

“I was thinking Donald Trump might like to buy those so he could get a more positive message about womens out there,” she says.

Much of her work is still as it began: rooted in family and scenes of Mary’s childhood, specifically honoring the grandmother who raised her, who died in the fire. That day, we bought a portrait of her grandmother and a sausage-shaped critter: “Grandma says: You can take a mule to water but you can’t make a succer drink.” See, suckers, sometimes you can’t tell if she’s messing with you.

That’s classic Missionary Mary: A painting consisting of a portrait or a scene of country life alongside witty or wise one-liners, quotes or anecdotes, hand-painted and constructed from anything the artist can find. Her most famous works are, like those original creations, profiles on doors, often featuring black women, posed with head and arms toward the heavenly sky, their dresses made of found objects, buttons, Bounce boxes, empty canisters of Liquid Nails. Her work often does that thing that’s so illusive in any art; by being poignant yet approachable, heartbreaking but funny, Mary’s work feels real.

 
 

Her process itself is deeply Southern.

There’s a quality, “a childlike need to create,” my friend, the poet and teacher Ashley Jones, calls it. In her book, “Magic City Gospel,” Ashley writes, in part, about being a black woman in Birmingham, the crossroads of identity in race, gender and history. When I asked her what she saw in Mary’s work, she remarked on the capability to evoke loss in what’s jubilant, expressing simultaneously “the joy of life and the inevitable end.” The work, she said, is “magical and sophisticated in its own way. It feels like a part of the tradition I'm eagerly scratching my way into — a Southern urge to make with what you have.”

Folk Art. Outsider Art. Vernacular Art. Art Brut. Naïve Kunst. These are the labels the art world applies to Mary as a self-taught artist who draws from her regional customs.

If there’s a name for the way we consume that art, I’m not privy. But there’s a tradition in the South (maybe elsewhere, too) of thinking of poor artists or rural dwellers as mystics, as holders of sacred know-how. We romanticize their lives, looking for the ways to improve ourselves — or our décor — through their art. And I get it. I’m guilty of it, as you already know. There’s some truth in this tradition, too. Despite our citified or comfy suburban lives, so many of us Southerners aren’t far removed from generations dependent on the land. We aren’t far removed from women who wore flour-sack dresses. It’s in our blood.

But we aren’t far removed from the Civil Rights Movement or Jim Crow or the Civil War, either. Just today, as my grandparents watched my son in the other room, I thumbed through a genealogical project of my pa-paw’s that included an ancestor’s 1809 will, bequeathing his slaves to his children, naming each: “A negro girl called ‘Jane’ to my eldest daughter, Sarah and all her heirs hence forth.” Although modern societal improvements occasionally fool us, we’ve inherited systems of privilege and oppression that play out everywhere. So when an artist like Mary shares one of her grandmother’s wisdoms or shares the heartbreaks of her life, maybe that feeling we get isn’t necessarily, or only, awe. Maybe it’s more like remembering something we’ve forgotten or tried to forget, something we lost, intentionally or not.

The themes in Mary’s work remind me of the poetry of Tina Mozelle Braziel, a native of the old mining town, Pratt City, Alabama. Her grandmother and namesake, Mozelle, often inspires Tina’s examination of identity in rural life. Tina admires Mary’s poetic ability to flip truisms, creating surprising images from potentially trite metaphors. But more importantly, she is drawn to the ways Mary represents a Southern ethic she witnessed growing up: Work hard, make do with what you’ve got, don’t give a shit about what people think.

“Mozelle was an example of what being a woman could be,” Tina says. “Very strong. Very intelligent. Not a lot of formal education.… Both my grandmothers, really, were feminists without ever saying the word ‘feminism.’ Mozelle’s example works against a lot of stereotypes of the South.”

Mary too speaks for the South, a place often condescendingly pitied or naively praised, for Southerners misrepresented or misunderstood. She knows there’s nothing romantic about being poor, nothing sentimental in the fear of faulting on a car payment or missing rent.

“I want the work out there. I want people to see the message,” she said. “I guess I want some money for it, too.”

Often it’s not until an artist has died that we begin to appreciate — and pay for — their work. Mary is less concerned with legacy than she is with getting by. But others see the potential for her to be remembered as an influential figure in Southern art.

“Mary’s still a young artist. Now is the time to begin collecting her work,” said Jeanine Taylor, proprietor of Jeanine Taylor Folk Art Gallery in Sanford, Florida. Jeanine, it should be said, runs the only other shop where Mary’s work is for sale. Mary’s distrust of self-proclaimed curators has intensified through years of being shorted or scammed or mistreated.

“People try to make me feel bad. That I’m stupid. Childish,” Mary said. “A guy came in here and took 20 pieces up to New York. Never sent money. Never sent the work back.”

So Mary spends time on the road selling at folk art festivals or participating in shows like the recent “Biennial” at the Atlanta Contemporary. On Facebook, true to character, Mary posted a photo of her outfit for the show’s opening, a green and gold, embroidered get-up she’d found that day at Salvation Army for $4, “a blessing and a bargain.” She’s active online, making sales with her followers. But all that is pretty small-time.

During the 2004 election, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned “The Presidents,” a collection of the 42 U.S. presidents, their suits made of Coke cans. Mary picked a quote from each man, a way to “show that even the ones we think were bad had something good to say.” After the show’s run, Coke offered $25,000 to keep the pieces permanently in their museum in Atlanta, but Mary thought the work was worth more. She countered. They passed. The presidents now line her window display in the mall hallway.

The idea of her work sitting in galleries far away isn’t appealing, nor is she keen on gallery owners doubling the price they paid her for pieces. The awareness, or foot traffic, a gallery in a big city draws isn’t enough to let the work go. Gallery owners, she said, often balk when “they realize they can’t control me.”

Listening to Mary, I couldn’t help but think of Frida Kahlo — famously stubborn, self-taught, scarred by constant misfortune. Maybe trudging through mires of life’s shit makes it hard to deal with pettiness, even when you need the money.

Kahlo’s work, though, transcends it all. “Hers was a body pulled gravitationally toward injury but her paintings always showed grace,” Leslie Jamison writes, in the essay “Frida’s Corsets.”

So true of Mary, too.

One of the doors that is quintessentially Missionary Mary, called “Rocky Road,” is a self-portrait, head and hands lifted skyward, dress made of hundreds of river stones. Painted above her head are the words: “The road has been rocky, but I’m going on anyhow.” Around that rock-made body are faces, phrases, glimpses into the struggle: “son in trouble”; “slander.”

Even though her sculpture “Shoe Choir” (a collection of old loafers singing in church pews) tells us, “If you haven’t walked in my shoes, you can’t tell my story,” this is my best attempt to follow through on our original pact.

I went to see her. I repaid her for the cow. Here’s the story Mary told.


 
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Mary Edwards was born in 1960. Her mother was only 12 years old, and in order to keep peace in the household and her daughter’s pregnancy a secret, Mary’s grandmother pretended to have found the baby in a ditch. “They didn’t claim me,” Mary said. “I didn’t really know who I was.”

Years passed, and as Mary’s mother would return home from “runnin’ around,” a new child in arm, Mary began to wonder where she fit in among her sisters. “They said, ‘Those mine, but not you.’ I grew up separate from them. It was hard to put things together.”

While she didn’t claim her as blood, Mary’s grandmother stuck close to the girl, teaching her about the world, about religion.

“All I had was Grandma to cover me for everything,” Mary says. “If I needed a mama, Grandma was there. If I needed a daddy, Grandma was there.” Her grandmother taught Mary to be tough, to ignore the boy at school who teased her relentlessly, to pick herself up when she fell in the chicken yard, to work hard — carrying the water, sweeping the floors — on the land they farmed. “It wasn’t an easy childhood. But I see now what she was teaching me. Beside, there ain’t no use in life, being a pity baby.”

Mary doesn’t blame her mother for pretending.

“She was just a baby herself,” Mary says. “You have a baby at 12 years old? You don’t know what to do.” (They’re close enough today for Mary to pay her light bill.) She wonders who her father is, talking about the men it might have been, re-arranging the same clues again and again. “My mama named me after a white man” — Edwards — “who lived up the road. I’m thinking, ‘Why did my mama name me that?’ My sister’s mixed with white. My granddaddy had white. Am I? I don’t know.”

Even though the Edwards family visited Mary when she was a girl, it’s another man she believes (or wants to believe) is her father. That man was an artist commissioned to paint a portrait of Jesus on a local church around the time of her conception. Mary wonders if that’s where her talent comes from — that man who would have been 25 or so with a wife and kids back in Thomasville, Georgia, where Mary would later be invited to visit and then run off by “brawling women” in his family.

Several locals have told Mary about that man taking her mother down to Lloyd Creek and “runnin’ around with a little girl.” Mary found him when she was 16. Anonymously, he sent her a car. When the bank repossessed it after he didn’t pay the note, she found his name and contact information on the paperwork, and they began corresponding. Sometimes, he’d come to visit her, but he never acknowledged what their relation might be. “I don’t know if that man actually was my daddy. I could just be gifted.”

Still a teenager, Mary went looking for the missing part of herself in other men — “I made mistakes; we all have our Magdalena days,” she joked — getting involved first with an older man, while her grandmother fought to prevent the inevitable heartache.

 
 

“She couldn’t stop me,” Mary says. “He tore me up just like she said he would.” Mary quit high school to be with him, and it wasn’t long before she was pregnant. On the afternoon she planned to tell him about the baby, standing on the dusty road beside her home at their regular meeting spot, he came past but didn’t slow. She panicked, jumping up and down, yelling. “Evil buzzard,” she remembered. “He rolled down that window — ‘Whatchu want!’ — and there was another girl asleep in the car. I got hysterical. She woke up and asked me what was wrong with me. ‘I’m pregnant,’ I told her. ‘Me, too,’ she says.”

Moments like this, these theatrical scenes, mark Mary’s life. She sounds protective of that younger self, remembering the times she’d see the other girl at hospital appointments during prenatal visits.

But when Mary had her son, Christopher, it was “pure joy.”

It wasn’t long, though, before she fell in love with another, more dangerous man. “This guy, whew, crazy, man. Real evil.” He kept her locked in their small apartment, sometimes forcing her into the trunk of the car when they went to town. One night, during one of his fits, he shot her in the head, the bullet grazing the top of her skull. If Mary hadn’t gotten a job working for Kathy Dixon, the wife of a Tallahassee lawyer, she’s certain that man would have killed her. Working as a nanny for the Dixon family, Mary was raising her son and theirs side-by-side when Dixon realized she was being abused. She got Mary an apartment and told her to keep a low profile for a few months.

“He finally got over it, I guess,” Mary says. “That’s when I met Tyrone. Hanging out at Lloyd Creek of all places. That’s the beginning of the good life.”

I wish I could tell you right now that everything was peachy.

That Mary and Tyrone Proctor, the loyal and soft-spoken fireman, had their two sons and adopted a little girl. That life was grand.

But you already know about the fire. And the next few years were “tough, tough.”

While giving birth to her third son, the anesthesiologist pierced a nerve, causing Mary’s right side to be partially paralyzed. She sued for medical malpractice, and although the doctor admitted fault, an all-white jury denied any damages. A year later, when a white woman suffered the same trauma by the same physician, the court used Mary’s case as proof of ongoing negligence, and a jury awarded the woman $1 million.

“Total injustice,” Mary said, shaking her head.

I feel the need to interrupt here, to say that I was skeptical of some of these stories, that I began to have a hard time accepting one person’s life could be packed with so many low punches. Later, as I talked with Tyrone, he recounted many of these tales in nearly identical detail, and even though I haven’t yet verified via court records, I have no real reason not to believe Mary and Tyrone.

Maybe it’s this: As Mary talked about that fight in court, my own son began to cry, hungry. We paused, and as I nursed him, Mary softened, waving her hands as if to clear the air of bad memories, saying quietly, “It’s so beautiful to have a child hug you like that, get its food from you.”

There I was, a 31-year-old woman, by most accounts whole and safe and over-educated in the ways my race and class have afforded me, questioning this woman’s life, who, in the year before I was born, was partially paralyzed, trying to raise three children and make a living without a high school education, having already escaped a nightmarish, abusive relationship in opportunity-scarce rural Florida.

By then, Mary was only 23.

Who am I to say what’s real and what isn’t?


 
 

Over the next decade, Mary raised her children, ran her flea market and loved Tyrone. She dealt with whatever hardships appeared and the ongoing nerve pain “by giving it up to God.”

That’s when the daily practice of listening began. Mary pointed to her Bible and said, “I got that book right there and started putting in hours and hours and hours.” Each morning, Mary meditates on Bible passages for three or four hours before leaving the house. “Every day since 1983, I been building my body back up through that book.”

Then, in 1994, the fire.

Mary drops into that rushed, hushed voice when she talks about it. She woke in the middle of the night to what she thought was a nightmare, shaking Tyrone awake. “I see smoke! I see Grandma!” She went in the bathroom to clear her head, and in the mirror, she says, an apparition of her grandmother’s face appeared. Mary heard her say, “I’m goin’ on now. Take care of the children.” Trying to stop her, Mary shoved a fist into the mirror, shattering her own image, bits of glass all over the sink.

Tyrone rose to the noise and helped his wife back to bed, assuring her it’d been a dream. She dozed back to sleep, fitfully, without the aid of the drink she’d need later to calm her nerves. “About an hour went by,” Tyrone remembered, eyes on Mary as he told the story, “The phone rang. We drove out to see, but the trailer was gone. It was pure devastation.”

The fire department said a space heater might have been the culprit, but rumors in town circulated that someone had been paid to hurry along an old word-of-mouth arrangement that when Mary’s family was off the land, the property would go to another man. Mary doesn’t care how the fire happened, only that I understand that such violence is a possibility in her world, only that the fire happened, only that she lost her grandmother.

“I thought she’d never leave this world,” Mary says. “She was a stubborn old lady. I didn’t want her burning up like that. I wanted her to fly away.”

 
 

Immediately, Mary had to “get around me things she’d said. I didn’t want to forget her. She’s the one who really done something for me. I could have been in an orphan home.” Mary collected more and more things that reminded her of the woman who raised her.

And then back to the story you now know: She fasted. Prayed. The vision. The paintings. The dealer driving down her highway. The acclaim. The museums.

Life isn’t tidy, though. And if Mary’s were merely myth, it’d end there with the promise of a prosperous future.

A few years after the fire, Mary’s eldest son, Christopher, died in a car accident. “The fire changed him, too. He revered Grandma. That sent his mind spinning.” Her ongoing physical trauma, the spasms, the stinging, that’s nothing, she said, compared to the sorrow of losing her son. “It’s pure pain, man. It’s pain to see your child leave this world any kind of way.”

Mary pointed to my son, now sleeping peacefully to the vibrating thrum of the industrial fan. She started to say something, then didn’t.

Christopher had been an artist, too. Some of his paintings — vibrantly colored birds of paradise — hang in her gallery. She didn’t want us taking photographs of them, as they’re just for her, just to live in that space of her creation. The next day should have been his 38th birthday. “This,” Mary said, sweeping her arms around the room, opening up to the world she’d made where hope is its own form of worship, where being witty is a way to be wise, “is the world I want to live. I want to be peaceful. I want to see joy.”

I asked Mary if that’s what she wanted you to know, if she held a prophetic connection to a higher power. She smiled and went sing-songing again: “Tell them that I’m Mar-ey! That I know her spirit! The spirit of joy-ey! All I want? Hope, peace, and goodwill to all men.”

Maybe that’s what happened when we first met. Somebody, in the right moment, showed me some love.

Hope, peace, and goodwill to you, Mary.