I read the introduction to “A Memoir of Mary Ann” years before I read the book itself. The introduction was written by Flannery O’Connor; and on its own it has been, and remains, important to me. Where suffering and death are concerned, I find O’Connor’s voice to be uniquely bracing and comforting. But only quite recently did I read the book for which she wrote the introduction.
The book itself, a work of non-fiction, was published in 1961, and authorship is credited to “the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta, Georgia”. The subject concerns a girl named Mary Ann Long. She was born in 1946 and died at the age of twelve.
Mary Ann was only three years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. A malignant tumor was swelling one side of her face and she was not expected to live much more than six months, perhaps less. She came from a poor family who could not afford to keep her at a hospital, so she was entrusted to the care of the nuns mentioned in the paragraph above. They belong to a religious order that was founded by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and their vocation is to provide care and comfort for victims of incurable cancer who cannot afford to pay for care.
Mary Ann impressed the nuns at once with her cheerfulness and energy. She lived about ten years beyond the time her doctor had expected, and all the while her presence profoundly touched everyone with whom she came into contact. She befriended many, including animals, and among her more striking traits was an ability to deflect pity away from herself. Her affliction was obvious, it swelled the left side of her face, and yet people were often unconscious of the cancerous deformity. Though she expressed doubts about the beauty that others saw in her, a spirit of acceptance obviated self-pity and bitterness: “This is the way God wants me.” She had a special fondness for the homely, whether found among a litter of puppies or among a collection of dolls. For me, the most touching episode concerns Mary Ann’s care for a dying woman from Kentucky whose husband had abandoned her. The episode is described in stark terms in a paragraph of less than twenty lines, but I cannot read it (or think about it) and remain dry-eyed. But the narrative also contains numerous moments of humor and charm, not to mention an arresting episode near the end that is comparable to Jesus being tempted in the desert.
There are certain books that can be categorized as “knapsack literature”. These are special books that one keeps while roughing it as a soldier, a pilgrim, a refugee or the like. Knapsack literature tends toward the realm of wisdom or high art: Plato, Shakespeare, Emerson, Nietzsche, etc. But if I had to choose such a book, I would seriously consider “A Memoir of Mary Ann”. It is a short work of non-fiction that is told in a simple style, and yet it seems to disclose the mystery of existence with much greater clarity than all the tomes of philosophers and artists, ancient and modern. Perhaps that’s because life’s ultimate purpose is simple: love God and love your neighbor. Mary Ann lived that love in a way that should humble and inspire those of us who tend to complicate the brief time we have in this world.