John Ostrander: My Friend, MEMcG
I’m going to exercise a point of personal privilege this week and write about a friend. Her name was Mary Ellen McGarry and I just received word that she died. Mary Ellen was a great soul, a giant heart, a wonderful talent, and a large personality. She filled a room three times over.
Out of all the people I’ve ever known, only my late wife, Kim Yale, had as outgoing and, at times, boisterous a personality. One of my nicknames for her was “Boom-boom” because her laughter and her voice could boom across a room and, indeed, across Lake Michigan.
And, lord, she could laugh. Loud, infectious, and riotous. I loved to make her laugh. I would get her going so hard that she would start hitting me to make me stop which, of course, only made me try harder.
In the summer of 1971 we worked as apprentices together at a summer theater, which meant we worked like dogs for very little money. It was a strange summer. The theater was located at a college so we all lived in dorms on campus. For Mary Ellen I made up a musical comedy, Tritzing to Tibet, based on the climbing of Mount Everest by Edmund Hilary. I should explain that it has less to do with historical fact than the central conceit of the movie, The Producers, in that any show that bad has to be a hit. I took all the events that happened in 1953 and, in an absurd breach of artistic license, moved them to 1937 so I could have an opposing chorus of Nazi mountain climbers.
Every night, just before curtain went up on whatever show we were doing, I got over to her in the wings and, sotto voce, sang her a new song from the show. I should also mention that in addition to not writing music I don’t even read music. The only purpose of the whole exercise was to see if I could reduce Mary Ellen to tears with laughter. Okay, so there’s a slightly sadistic side to me.
The thing is – over the years, any time we would get together, Mary Ellen insisted on hearing some or all of those godforsaken tunes. The last time was at a reunion last year for alums of the Loyola University Theater Department (where we first met). Mary Ellen had lung problems and at that point was in a wheel chair and had to constantly have oxygen. It didn’t slow her down an inch. And she wanted me to sing some of the songs from Tritzing to Tibet.
I demurred. To be honest, I was afraid that if I got her laughing too hard I might literally kill her. Boom-boom would have none of that. She knew her own limits and she knew what she wanted and, by god, I would sing. I did and she was right.
She was also incredibly brave. Her lungs were giving up on her but she was told that, with a lung transplant, she might live longer. However, she was also teaching kids at that point. She loved it but, if she got a lung transplant, she would have had to give it up. We all know kids are Petri dished for diseases and she would likely have caught those germs and her new lungs could not have taken it.
Mary Ellen and I had a long talk about it on the phone and she was clear and firm. She would not give up what she loved so much. I had to respect that. I still do.
So many people loved you, Mary Ellen. I hope you knew that.
There’s so much more to you than I can begin to recount here. I will carry your voice and your laughter and your spirit in my memory and my heart all my days. I will grieve the loss of you and that’s alright. Those we love who have died are worth the tears we shed for them. I will celebrate your life because you were so filled with it.
Thanks, Boom-Boom, for being my friend. Love you.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell