She would do anything, I believe, whether it was to have fun or to fulfill a life-long dream. I remember a group of kids on a trip to the British Isles once daring her to try to moonwalk on a busy subway platform at rush hour, and she wasted no time turning around, slanting her head down just a bit and doing the worst impersonation of Michael Jackson's moonwalk anyone has ever seen. Her students were in stitches and lots of strangers clapped and yelled.
If she needed to know something, Mom would stop at nothing to get the answer. And she needed to know a lot about British authors - a lot! She devoured English Lit and never stopped wanting to fit the puzzle pieces together on a historical literary figure. She could tell you where the Bronte sisters liked to write, what direction T. S. Eliot was facing when he wrote which line, and the very room where an author stayed at any home we might pass on a trip. She could make even the least inquisitive become enthralled in why a novel was written or what the author was trying to say. If I have a regret in regards to my mother it's that I didn't ask her enough questions. I didn't try to find out all that she had taught to her students, didn't glean enough from her vast knowledge of such interesting subjects.
Many times, when I was with her and a group of students (I accompanied her to Europe a couple of times) we would follow her like a group of eager ducklings behind their mother. She would have her dog-eared book opened, reading aloud with no regard for the strangers who wondered what we were doing, and we would trail her, completely entranced in what she was reading. I recall many times when an information desk clerk or tour guide would come up short on answering Mom's questions. "Hmmm, I haven't run into anyone who knows this much about this particular subject," they would say, and then they would laugh later when they had to say it again!
Mom told me about a trip she took just a year before she died. She was using her weekends off from a summer program at Cambridge to delve into English Lit a little further, and she would grab a taxi and start with the questions. She recalled that once she got a taxi driver that knew very little about the authors she was studying, but he began to be intrigued by her questions, her queries and her stories. She arranged to meet up with him on another weekend, and the next weekend, he asked if he could walk with her on her hunt and listen to her read. She immediately thought he was looking for an easy way to work the day away with the meter ticking along, when he assured her that he wouldn't dream of charging her - he was looking at as furthering his education. And so the two of them spent the day together; he drove and she read. It worked out nicely.
Mom was like that. She could talk to anyone. Really. And, not only could she talk to them, but she would ask them anything and she would quite happily relay for them a story!
On this same summer trip, on a weekend off from Cambridge, Mom took the train down to the Cornwall area to visit St. Ives. St. Ives is a storied village, with a lure to fishermen and artists and has been known to be the vacation spot for many writers. Mom knew that Virginia Woolf had had a home there and that one summer, T. S. Eliot, one of her favorites, had stayed there to write. To no one's surprise, Mom wanted to see the very house. She needed to see it, to see where it sat, to see what the authors would have seen in the afternoon, out their back window and at the close of the day.
Arriving in St. Ives, she wasted no time beginning her search for the house; and in her usual manner, she was not put off by insufficient answers. If she didn't get the answer she needed, she would just have to think of some other way to ask the question. And so she did, and she finally learned that Woolf's house was up on a high hill from town near a spot called Eagle's Nest, but that it was nearly impossible to get there without knowing someone who lived in that area. I assume that you know by now that she was not to stop there.
Mom asked someone to point in the direction of this hill up from town, found a bus that seemed to be going in that direction and jumped on it. She found a seat near the front and then proceeded to explain to the driver that she needed to depart at Eagle's Nest. He quickly informed her that there was no stop there, no public buildings there, no where for her to go. She explained that she needed to get off there. He explained that he wouldn't be able to let her off, that she would be stranded. None of this bothered her apparently, because she forced the driver to stop the bus when she saw the little sign that said Eagle's Nest.
In retelling the story, Mom told me that the driver seemed to be a good fellow and did not feel right about leaving her. She eventually instructed him that she would be fine and he slowly pulled off, making sure she knew the bus schedule just in case. At this point in the story, I stopped Mom to ask what she saw when she got off of the bus. "Not one thing," she said.
In true Mary Murphy form, she just began to walk. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the terrain was spectacular. She didn't have a plan, but it didn't seem to matter. The bus had hardly gotten out of her sight when she spotted a man near the side of the road, weeding an area of wildflowers and such. She told me that he looked a little surprised to see someone out walking on this road and asked how she was doing. When she answered in her very heavy Southern drawl, he was really surprised!
They struck up a conversation. She told him about being an English teacher from Georgia in the United States and he told her that he had lived there for years and dabbled some in painting and writing. I'm sure it didn't take long for her to ask him if he knew where the house in question was, and the man began to laugh out loud. "That house is just down from mine, here, just down the hill by the water." As you must know by now, the man invited Mom to come down to his house and see the view of the water and see the house where the authors had alternately lived and wrote. My mother was delighted - another piece of the puzzled snapped into place. What a great story she would have for next year's classes, she thought to herself.
She spent a couple of hours there with the man, and they found more and more that they had in common. My mother was fascinated by the human mind and how it was portrayed in written word and he was interested in the same thing. He also told her about his work in fine art, showed her some of his paintings and talked to her of his work as an art critic. They were both writers, both appreciated true beauty and talent and both wanted to keep uncovering the mysteries that fascinated them. It was apparently a delightful conversation.
As the sun began to get low on the horizon, Mom needed to start her trip back to the town. She laughed as she recalled the man's laughter at how she planned on getting back to town. He explained that it would take a long time to reach St. Ives on foot, the bus didn't run by there anymore until tomorrow and he chuckled when he asked her if she had thought of that. By that time, he knew that her quest was about something bigger and arriving back at the B and B on time was of little concern. As luck might have it only for Mom, the man explained that he was headed into town and would be happy to drive her there himself.
That was that. The day had been wonderful and a story had been born, for sure. Mom thanked him for the ride and for the delightful day and they exchanged addresses to correspond later. She was tickled with herself and wandered through town, poking in and out of little shops, full of art and trinkets from the area. She began to think that it would be nice to have a memento of the day and decided to look to see if she could find a small painting done by her new friend, Patrick. She had already thought of hanging it in her classroom and telling the story of this afternoon to her new students. They would laugh, she thought.
She found an art gallery that looked nice enough and seemed to have a bit of everything, specializing in the art of the area - art of the sea and the cliffs and the hills of Cornwall. She entered and began to casually look for a piece by her friend. The proprietor quickly found her and asked if she could help. "Yes, would you happen to have anything by a man named Patrick Heron?" asked my Mom. (And here is where I really wish she could tell you the story!)
Mom explained that she doesn't ever remember being moved anywhere as fast as she was whisked to the back room, made comfortable and asked about whether or not she would like something to drink or a refreshment. She wasn't sure what was happening and tried to ask the woman why she was sitting in the small room with the table. The woman explained that she didn't have any Patrick Herons in the shop but her assistant was making some calls. I guess it was at this point that Mom came clean and explained she had absolutely no idea what was going on. Quickly, the three of them were laughing hysterically. The two shopkeepers were laughing that Mom didn't know who Patrick Heron was and Mom was laughing because they thought she was a rich art purchaser from New York!
Suffice it to say that she didn't purchase any pieces that day. But, she sure did have a story to tell. Patrick Heron, they explained was the foremost abstract painter in Britain and they told her tale after tale and showed her books and magazines which showcased his work. She wouldn't be leaving the village with any Heron's! The ladies were amazed that Mr. Heron had spent the afternoon with Mom, as he was 'somewhat of a hermit and wasn't one for socializing much.'
Mom left the shop, having added new layers to this new story, and with information about the best places in London to see Heron's work. At this point, it cannot be a surprise that one of his most famous works is at the famed National Portrait Gallery in London, and it is a portrait Heron did of T.S. Eliot.
Patrick Heron and Mom corresponded a lot in the coming year, and she had him promise that when he came to America in a couple of years, he would come and speak to her classes. She said he had gotten intrigued with the idea of 'the Golden Isles' and seemed very interested in meeting with the kids. I have no doubt that had Mom lived until the time of his trip, he would have been a most distinguished guest at Glynn Academy!
The following year, I accompanied Mom and many of her former students back to England. Mom was to be a tutor for the Cambridge Summer Session, so her former students decided to enroll. I can't blame them for going after such a rich adventure. Attending Cambridge for summer school with Mary Murphy as your guide wasn't a bad rap! I got in on the trip too late to enroll myself, so I went along just for the adventure. Each day was something new, and I reveled in seeing all that I could see. I rented a bike for the summer and rode it all over, onto the train to visit neighboring towns, and anywhere else I could go. It was a wonderful adventure.
Upon our arrival in England, Mr. Heron had arranged for us to be met by a gallery owner and 'shown around' one of the places that showed his work. What an experience! We were met by a most distinguished fellow who treated us as if we were the preeminent art collectors from the US, and our motley crew of tourists, all of us in sweat shirts and multi-colored mismatches were spoken to as if we were royalty. A young docent spoke to us about Mr. Heron's works, about what had made him famous and took us into a room where he allowed us to peruse different pieces from each of his 'periods.' (And it wasn't lost on us that there were two names on the front window of the gallery: Patrick Heron and Pablo Picasso.)
On one of our weekend jaunts out from the university, we traveled to St. Ives. If I have ever seen my mother prouder, I can't remember - she was close to giddy on the morning that we boarded the bus to head up the hill to Eagle's Nest. She was proud to be showing her students and me what she had found and she was proud to show Patrick Heron 'her kids.' It was an unforgettable day. He showed us all around his house, we toured his studio, touched his works and marveled at his beautiful gardens. He seemed delighted to have us and was intrigued by the level of questioning of the students. After a couple of hours, the students left to board the bus back down into the village and my mother and I were invited to stay for coffee. (Coffee was not his usual, he said, but he thought the Americans would like it.)
It was an unforgettable day. It sounds corny to say that the sun was shining in the sky and the sky was blue, but it really was! Mr. Heron was fascinating and I most loved being in his studio. He showed me where he had what he was working on now, and he even showed us some drawings and paintings that he had done as a small child. He and my mother had lengthy conversations about the arts and about literature and about the world. Much of the time, I enjoyed just listening to these two amazing people talk with one another. I felt a bit like we were about to be on a documentary about a couple of hillbillies from Georgia who stumble upon a world famous artist and strike up a friendship. It had a good storyline!
Heron took us to the corner window of his house to see the best view of the place that Eliot had rented that summer long ago, and he regaled us with stories about his experiences with painting the portrait. I can't remember a more intriguing afternoon in my life.
When it was nearing time to leave, he told us about a 'delightful' way to mosey back to the village, by way of a few sheep fields, beside the roaring waters and ending up behind a church built long, long ago. Mom and I were like little kids on Christmas morning when we left, both of us sated with the thrill of adventure, and we found ourselves giggling the whole walk.
Mom and I along the walk back to the bus.
We caught the bus at our new 'delightful' spot, and I couldn't help wishing that the bus would pull up with that original driver who had dropped Mom at Eagle's Nest the summer before - I would love to have witnessed Mom explaining it all to that worried bus driver!
We arrived back in town and laughed about 'not going to purchase' any Heron works and ambled around for a bit before dinner. As we made our way towards our B and B, a car honked at us while we crossed the last street. We looked in the direction of the horn and saw none other than Heron. He 'had thought of a couple more places we might like to try and he just wanted to tell us.' He quickly handed my Mom a piece of paper where he had scribbled the names of two restaurants, shyly nodded and then drove off.
That was the last either of us saw of him, though I wrote to him when my mother died. He wrote back with the nicest note and told of how much he had enjoyed meeting her. He died peacefully in his home in 1997. When I got word that he had died, I felt like I had lost a friend and another little interesting piece of my adventurous mother.
It would be hard for me to explain how proud I am that she was crazy enough to get off that bus on top of the hill.