Scary Mary

When I was in my 20s and new to adulting, I took my dog to the veterinarian. She was the first living creature I had ever taken care of myself.

She was coughing and sniffling and doing what dogs do when they try to sneeze. When she was on the vet’s table, to show that I was indeed a knowledgeable pet owner, I said, “I don’t like her being so stuffed up, even though I know that dogs can breathe through their ears.”

There was a pause.

“What did you say?” asked the vet.

“I know that dogs can breathe through their ears…” and the vet stifled a laugh. And then gave up and laughed out loud. And laughed some more.

My sister had done it again.

Mary Jane, nine-and-a half years older than me, had salted my childhood with bits of  “information” that still trip me up once in a while. (No, you don’t catch shrimp by spearing them individually.) To be fair, maybe she thought some of it was true. But I doubt it. Not from the long-distance peals of laughter I heard when I called her that night.

That was my sister.

The prankster, the knowledgeable one – and the one I could count on when I was in trouble.

Back when I created the Modine column, she supported me, both by laughing at the right times, and by coming up with Modine stories of her own.

Mary Jane had been an only child for nine-and-a-half years before I appeared. Later in life she thanked me for arriving in time to distract our mother from whatever she planned to do as a teenager.

Momma probably read something about preventing jealousy between siblings, because she allowed Mary Jane to choose my name— after a saint, of course.  Momma handed her a Catholic book of the saints, and Mary Jane chose Elizabeth of Hungary – because, she told me later, Elizabeth was neither a virgin nor a martyr.

I followed along in her footsteps. We both went to Ursuline and Loyola; we both studied education and journalism, and we both married men whose names started with A.

She was matron of honor at my wedding. That morning, we were gathered with the bridesmaids at the back of the church; the music started; the first bridesmaid began her slow walk up the aisle; and Mary  Jane turned to me frantically and said “I left my bouquet in the limo.” Which had driven away, for some reason.  Hysterical whispering as the next bridesmaid stepped out; then the next one. Finally I shoved my missal at her and hissed “Do something!” – it was our late father’s  and I was carrying it for sentiment.

She flipped it open, raised it to shoulder level, and marched solemnly up the aisle. Perfect. At the reception, I heard her telling people that the carrying of the dead father’s missal was an old Irish tradition.

Momma had always complained because she didn’t have the large family she had envisioned, and we tried to make up for that. Mary Jane and her husband, Al Lacoste, produced eight children, and Art and I produced six.

After she had her seventh child, she decided to go back to school for her PhD in education. Astounded, I asked why. She said, “How else am I going to get out of the house?”

Even after she became Dr. Lacoste, she thought like Modine. When Modine tried to light a Yule log that turned out to be a creosote-soaked piece of telephone pole somebody had picked up from the side of the highway, that was Mary Jane. (Don’t try it.)

And when Modine’s sister-in-law had a gender reveal party and asked her son to read the announcement, and he instead read aloud the instructions for scrotal care after the vasectomy of his dad – that was Mary Jane’s idea.

She served as principal of two special education schools, taught at Xavier University, wrote “Death Embraced;” a book about New Orleans burial customs, and led French Quarter tours, introducing herself as “Scary Mary.”

She left us April 13, at age 90.

Yesterday I told one of the grandkids that dogs can breathe through their ears.

Some stories are meant to live forever.