Finding a new kind of beauty in a national holiday


What do you think of when you watch fireworks? I expect many people think of our country: history and independence and valor. Some probably think merely of the exploding color: bangs and pops and sighs of wonder.

I think of Mary.

Mary grew up outside San Francisco in the hills of Marin County, just beyond Sausalito, where the highway dips so close to the water that you can hear the waves whispering to the wheels of passing cars.

Above these hills rises Mt. Tamalpais, whose blue-pink slopes defined so much of Mary’s childhood. She loved that mountain and spent most of her youth roaming its crevasses and curves, never ceasing to wonder what was beyond the next hillside — and never hesitating to go and find out. Throughout her life, Mary would see something in the most pedestrian of moments and think of her mountain, and her soul would stretch out some of its kinks.

When Mary was a teenager, her father took her to San Francisco to hear a concert by Sergei Rachmaninoff. We know Rachmaninoff now mostly as a composer, but in his day he was a brilliant performer, perhaps the closest thing they had to an international rock star. As Mary listened to the notes crashing out of his piano, she decided to dedicate her life to music, to harnessing the beauty she found in that moment so she could share it with others.

That wasn’t the last time music changed her life. In college one day, Mary was playing Debussy’s “Pagodas” when a young man named James entered her practice room. He had just returned from the war, where he had been stationed in Japan, and the Asia-inflected music he heard from the practice room piqued his interest — as did the beauty of the woman playing it. They were married eighteen months later.

Over the next several years, Mary gave birth to four children. She worked as a professional pianist and organist, often accompanying the church choirs conducted by James, even as she earned a master’s degree in music.

And then, one day, Mary saw a hill whose far side needed to be explored. In her late forties, she set aside her piano and earned a doctorate in psychology. She opened a private clinical psychology practice, which she maintained for nearly 20 years, wanting — with every tool at her disposal — to help others find their own beauty.

Mary and James retired, though Mary hated that word and the slowness and dullness it implied. She jumped into long-latent hobbies like painting and gardening, and she founded a continuing-education program for seniors at the local college. And, of course, she continued to write, sometimes in formal essays and sometimes as informal “morning sketches,” brief whispers of her thoughts as she greeted the earliest hours of each day. She once wrote in these sketches about a hot air balloon hovering over her backyard — but the beauty she saw was not merely in the colors of the fabric, but in the perspectives she imagined of the people in the basket. “What a marvelous view they must have,” she wrote. “What a marvelous view.”

Inevitably, Mary’s pen slowed, her paintbrushes dried, and her piano fell out of tune. As she lost her eyesight in her final days, she took to laying her hands on her face. She would feel their weight, the hands that defined the many parts of her life: the light touch of a pianist playing Debussy, the firm touch of a young mother with four children, the guiding touch of a therapist and author, the loving touch of a wife who held the hand of the same man for 64 years.

I like thinking of Mary’s story throughout the year: it reminds me how many mountains in my life have a far side worth exploring, how it’s never too late to begin anything, how we can take any moment and see in it something new and wonderful.

But I think of Mary on July 4th in particular because it’s the last day I saw her. Independence Day, 2013, when I stood at the deathbed of my grandmother, Mary Baird Carlsen, and said goodbye.

It was, of course, a dark day for my family — but we had been well trained by this remarkable woman. So as we stood around her bed that night, we turned to see the colored light of the fireworks exploding outside the window. We imagined Mary looking down on it all, and we thought: what a marvelous view she must have.