Hello Mary Lu

April 3, 2024 Betsy Voreacos

Hello Mary Lu

I lost Mary Lu somewhere in the shuffle of life.

But forever etched in my mind is the image of her laughing, dancing and toasting my happiness at my wedding almost 35 years ago.

“I told you that you’d get what you always wanted,” she said.

Mary Lu and I met when we were both working at TV Guide magazine. With its intense deadlines, surges of stress followed by incongruous down time, infuriating computer crashes, and long hours legitimizing a short four-day work week, it was the kind of job that artfully converted co-workers into the best of buddies. Most of us were young and single and bonded over the kind of fun you can only have in your 20s.

Mary Lu and I were fun-chasers to the nth degree.

TV Guide believed itself so essential to life in the 80s that whenever it snowed we were put up at a hotel around the corner from the office. Not for our personal safety of course, but as assurance that we wouldn’t use icy streets as an excuse to miss work the following day. The mere possibility of a printing delay was the only justification Walter Annenberg needed to pick up the hefty tab that we ran up while eating, drinking and canoodling at the St. David’s Inn. Mary Lu and I loved those snowy nights, bellying up to the bar long after our co-workers bedded down for the night, sipping our vodka tonics, flirting with out-of-town salesmen who swore they weren’t married and sharing the dreams of our future selves.

Mary Lu was the kind of person who brought out my wild and crazy side. Not that I have ever needed external encouragement – but when adventure offers its hand I rarely think twice. I just reach out and then hold on for dear life. Beyond our snowy escapades, we spent many a night searching for love in all the right places with all the wrong people. We circled Philadelphia and its suburbs, frequenting night clubs and parties, laughing, dancing, sharing nachos at Bennigan’s and hot dogs at Phillies games.

But Mary Lu was so much more than fluff and fun. Her heart was pure gold with a soul to match. She lived with her parents and a bunch of siblings who rotated in and out of the house. No family member, and possibly no one in the world was more important to her than her mentally-disabled brother, Sean. After her parents died, she became his primary caregiver, though one might argue that she always had been.

Mary Lu believed in me at a time in my life when there really wasn’t a whole lot to believe in. I wanted more than anything to grow up, get married, produce a slew of children and replicate my childhood. It may be chuckle-able now, but when I was in my late 20s I was pretty positive that I had already reached the pinnacle of my life.

But Mary Lu was the yang to my yin, promising that I’d end up not only successful, but married with multiple children, driving a minivan, walking a Labrador retriever and owning a house with a white picket fence. I merely rolled my eyes.

Until in a simple twist of matchmaking fate, one of those best of buddies at TV Guide magazine became a boyfriend. Then an ever-loving spouse. Then the father to my children – three of them. Minivan, owned it, drove it, traded it in for a second one. Fence? While it isn’t white, its six-foot high pickets restrained first a black mutt, then our current yellow Lab.  Successful? As long as that term is defined as living in layers of love surrounded by friends and fun rather than fame and fortune, then yup, she nailed it all around.

When I was 31 years old, I left TV Guide, got married, moved to New Jersey and never saw Mary Lu again.

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Life was hard In the olden days. There was no whipping off of fast texts, no tapping quick “likes” on Instagram posts and no such thing as email. We relied heavily on the telephone, despite its downfalls. We had to pay for long-distance, parents were prone to answering the phone, often wanting to (gulp) chat and pesky siblings loved to delete answering machine messages before they reached their intended.

So I did the old-fashioned thing and wrote actual letters to Mary Lu. OK. I’ll admit, I only sent two, but still – they both were met with radio silence.

Fast forward to the modern era. Somehow she had circumvented social media. A less obsessive human would have given up but there was something about Mary Lu that I couldn’t let go of.

I am not a particularly religious person, but rather more of a better-safe-than-sorry sort. I sit by my ever-loving spouse’s side at church on Sundays, provoking bored children with funny faces and doodling on the weekly bulletin in the margins next to the Lord’s Prayer. But this year I decided to do join the holier-than-whatever I am contingent and do something for Lent.

Friends have always been the cornerstone of my life and I pride myself in keeping them for a life time. But a few, like Mary Lu, had fallen through the cracks. So for the 40 days of Lent, which I learned because of you know, my Excel sheet, is actually 46 days (go ahead and count) I vowed to make contact with someone I’d neglected, rejected or lost along the way.

And down the rabbit hole I went.

While I’m not big on rejection, when it comes to the making and keeping of friends, that word left my vocabulary in middle school. I simply don’t take no for an answer. When I recently googled Mary Lu’s name, my screen lit up with several Mary Lou’s including one from Tasmania, a singer-songwriter, an author and an obituary. But no Mary Lu. Clearly, the  missing o makes all the difference.

I then went on whitepages.com and it showed the same address that had yielded no response thirty odd years ago. Yet there was a new clue. It revealed another name at the same address. A husband, a son? I found him on Facebook and messaged him. I got a response a couple of weeks later asking who I was, how I knew her, and quizzed me on her maiden name. I had all the right answers and convinced him that I was not a stalker by giving him my phone number and email address.

It worked.

I really didn’t know if I’d recognize her after a 35-year hiatus when we planned to meet for lunch at Miller’s Ale House at Plymouth Meeting Mall. The restaurant was on a corner so there were choices – left lot, right lot, front lot. I pulled in two minutes late due to a long traffic light, reached over to my passenger seat to gather my goods, looked up and in a serendipitous nod from the goddess of friend-finding, there she was. She had pulled into the very spot that was right next to mine.

It took no less than a split second to know it was her.

And when we took our seats in a booth at the restaurant, the first thing she asked was, “So, tell me – did you have the five kids?”

When two hours I left to go visit my 98-year-old mother, I did so reluctantly, realizing there hadn’t been a single second of that dreaded lull in conversation. We filled in the gaps of our aging minds, sparking memories of people and places and wondering how we ended up not only alive, but happy and somehow, still friends. We had just barely touched on the titillations and tribulations of our lives when we said our goodbyes. There was so much more to go.

But luckily, we have a ways to go. Neither one of us is planning on checking out any time soon. I know that we’ll stay in touch and we’ll see each other again and again. In our newfound old friendship we won’t be bellying up to the bar, but we will be in constant awe of how we got where we are and how we got what we got.

It’s a wonderful life, indeed.