Mary Wilbur Autobiography Review

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Donald Isler
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Mary Wilbur Autobiography Review

Post by Donald Isler » Wed Oct 03, 2018 11:36 pm

As today would be the 100th birthday of our remarkable friend, Mary Wilbur, I'm once again posting the review I wrote some years ago of her autobiography.

Bits and Pieces of My Life
A Memoir by Mary Wilbur
Quince Press, 2011

There are stories all around us. As someone whose parents have written extensive autobiographies I was very interested to learn that someone else I know very well, someone in whose house I spent a lot of time as a young child, had just written about her long and very interesting life.

Until I was about eight years old the Wilburs and the Islers were close friends, and saw a lot of each other. Then the Wilburs moved from the Riverdale section of the Bronx far, far away to Staten Island. Actually Staten Island, like the Bronx, is part of New York City but within a few years we lost contact with the Wilburs only to reconnect more than 30 years later via the Internet. Nowadays Mary, living in a small but beautiful town along the Pacific in northern California and my mother, living in the suburbs of New York City, are in touch daily via email, a form of communication not dreamed of in the early years of their friendship.

Who, then, is Mary Wilbur? Quite a unique and colorful personality.

Born two months premature in Wales with one normal arm and hand and one shortened arm lacking a hand just before the end of World War I, she grew up in London. Bright and curious she did not understand the idea of being unable to do things other people could do. As a child she once even won a swimming competition, perhaps in part because this was not supposed to be possible. Though she might literally be considered someone with a disability there was scarcely anything she couldn't do. And, in fact, she has had a more active and accomplished life than many people without such complications having had, among many other things, a demanding career, becoming a passionate gardener, and raising two children.

She tells of life in England between the wars and of her adventures, such as being a nanny for a French family in the mid '30s, and a trip to Germany and Austria in 1939 the aim of which was to help a Jewish friend's family remove some of their assets from the continent while this was still possible. She studied social work and began her career as a social worker during the war. And
she describes how people coped with every day life while London was being bombed.

In 1950 she came to America to study for a year with the admonition from her mother "Don't marry a Yank!" Mary replied "That's the last thing I have in mind!" And it's exactly what she did about a year later. Her husband, Emery, was soft-spoken but had very much his own sense of humor and irony. Both of them were very literate, and involved in the arts.

Mary became a Quaker and had (still has) strong political convictions which she was not always careful to hide. There are several amusing stores that relate to this, one being about when she was supposed to be sworn in as an American citizen but was outraged that the judge interviewing her was being unfair in questioning someone else. She spoke her mind and shoved her own citizenship papers at the judge, walking out on the interview. (Though she later did become a citizen, after all.)

It is not important whether one always agrees with Mary or not, but that her intentions are always backed by intelligence and compassion, especially for those whom she feels have been poorly served by society. She had several important jobs working for New York State and often fought to achieve reforms for the mentally handicapped, such as those living at the infamous Willow Brook Center in Staten Island, where conditions for patients were horrible. And she describes at length the herculean task she set for herself to establish a drug treatment plan for Staten Island, and the ridiculous red tape and bureaucracy she went through in the process.

A talented writer with a wonderful sense of humor Mary describes her difficulties with the "American'' language in her early days in this country (or, rather, Americans' problems with her British use of the language). And she sees the irony in many situations. One was that, as her (now deceased) husband retired before she did, she was happy to discover what it was like to have a "wife" who saw that dinner was ready for her when she came home from a long day at work. However, within a short time of her own retirement, he somehow "lost" his cooking skills and that became her job again.

Now 93 and still full of energy, Mary Wilbur continues to garden, writes about horticulture for several magazines, travels, entertains family and friends, and keeps busier than many people who have no disablility and are 20 years younger. Her story is both entertaining and impressive.

Donald Isler
Donald Isler

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