Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

A Smile Timed Life

by MaryAnn Saunders

Author Bio

Mary Ann graduated from Hunter College in New York City with majors in English and Teaching. She moved to California and taught in various schools: high school English, World Civilization and Special Education. Later, she completed a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Foreign Languages and continues to teach ESL to adults at Bechtel International Center at Stanford. Her passions are reading, gardening, traveling, crocheting, and playing with her grandkids.


Several times during my life, I have heard about the suicides of friends and family of friends who I know, nothing close to home. Each time, I ponder what the person must have been like earlier in life and how the person morphed into one who is momentarily crazy (since I think suicide is a temporary insane act). The protagonist in my story is strong, creative, loving and loved, and yet even an iron personality can succumb to the insanity of doing away with herself. I also wanted to explore how those who are left behind feel. How they do not stop loving the person and needing them in their lives.

Maybe seven or eight times a day, I talk to my friend, MJ, either in my mind or by a whisper. This morning, when I was putting on my makeup, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked MJ aloud, "What color eye shadow should I wear today?" I got an inkling of an answer to choose the sienna brown, so that’s what I’m wearing. I think it was a good choice, MJ.

MJ ’s real name is Mary Jane O’Malley, a beautiful red headed descendant of one of the stubborn headed O’Malleys who moved to the U.S. towards the latter part of the potato famine. As the story goes, her sharecropping ancestors worked the land and lived on the promises of their landlord, and "Ireland is our home!" Finnegan O’Malley couldn’t believe that landowner O’Rourke would drive them to extinction, but that is indeed where they were headed. It was Fiona O’Malley who had squirrelled away funds for their escape to the New World and saved the bloodline.

It’s a rather amusing story how Mary Jane became MJ. It was on the first day of school in the fall of our sixth grade. At the beginning of class, Mary Jane walked up to Mrs. Grader’s desk and whispered in her ear. Mrs. Grader then called the class to attention.

"Class, Mary Jane would like to tell you something that she has decided. She wishes you to respect her decision and that’s what we will do," she announced.

Mary Jane looked over the class and drew a determined scowl on her face. Slowly she explained: "I have grown up. Mary Jane is a baby name for babies. I am a young girl and wish to be taken seriously. From this day forward, I would like everyone to call me MJ. That is now my name," she stated emphatically and then sat back down. Next, Mrs. Grader stood up and asked if anyone else had any announcements, but we were all stunned into silence at the boldness of our mature friend that no one spoke and everyone called Mary Jane MJ from that day forward.

Interesting times were never in short supply with MJ as a friend. As young kids, MJ, myself, and three other neighborhood girls formed the Pink Hearts Club. One day in church the priest spoke about helping those less fortunate than yourself and MJ decided that the Pink Hearts were the fortunates and should do something about the less fortunates. Her plan was to pick the fruit off of all the neighbors’ trees and bring it door to door to a neighborhood not far away where the houses needed painting. In those days, chipping paint was the barometer of what constituted less fortunate. After school, the five of us would go to houses where fruit trees looked overflowing and ask the owners if we could pick their fruit. Then, we had poles our fathers had rigged for us with a tin can attached on one end. We would cup the fruit and then jiggle the can until the fruit fell into it. Most afternoons, with all the bickering about which fruit looked ripe, laughing about the poses we had to hold to reach the fruit, and then dancing around to loosen the fruit free, it took us hours to pick even a couple of grocery bags of fruit. Sometimes, we sang "I’ve been working on the railroad" and sometimes we sang the parts we could remember from "I am woman. Hear me roar."

Then, we had to walk blocks and blocks to deliver the fruits of our labor (pun intended). Who would be brave enough to knock at the door of a rundown house? Of course, at first, we pushed MJ forward to approach our customers. Later, we all took turns. The customers seemed surprised and pleased and we all felt better about helping the less fortunate. On weekends, we usually ended our workday in Edy’s Soda Fountain, gulping Edy’s made-from-scratch frozen lemonade as our reward for all our sweaty, strenuous, and totally satisfying labor.

By high school, the Pink Hearts outgrew the time-consuming and kiddish fruit picking project for visits to nursing homes and the local senior center. Sometimes we instructed art projects; sometimes we joined dance classes to liven up the atmosphere in the stuffy facilities; sometimes MJ played piano and we attempted to sing together and in tune, especially during the holidays; sometimes we just sat and listened to the fascinating, often repetitious, ancient histories of the seniors. There is no doubt that the trite saying When volunteering, you get more than you give is a truism we all learned.

When MJ was 15, she received a Polaroid camera from her parents for Christmas and that changed her life. Since it was a Polaroid, the subjects had to sit or stand as still as possible in order for MJ to get a sharp picture. With permission, she took group shots of the nursing home residents and members of the senior center. We walked around the neighborhood and she took shots of the houses we were going to buy and sometimes of flowers cascading over fences or of a sleeping dog or anything that caught her eye really. Of course, there was also a myriad of photos of the Pink Hearts taken, posing this way and that, always clowning around.

Before long, MJ saved up her allowance and, with a generous loan from her dad, bought herself a Nikon F100 which enabled her to take shots of anything. I have to laugh when I think about the shots she took of her neighbor, Signora Bassi. Occasionally, Mrs O’Malley would have MJ and me bring over a meal for the Bassis and every time we stopped in, Signora Bassi would command us. "Sit! Sit!" It was said exactly like you tell a dog to sit. Then, she would put out all the fixings for her favorite food, a chocolate ice cream sundae, and we would go to town. Chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, rainbow-colored sprinkles, chopped peanuts, chocolate syrup, maraschino cherries. We would have a contest about who could make the best sundae, but it seemed that all three of the sweet masterpieces had winning points.

One day MJ asked Signora Bassi, "Why are chocolate ice cream sundaes your favorite?"

Signora Bassi gathered her thoughts before she spoke. "During the war in Italy, I was a young girl like you. We had no electricity. Nothing cold to eat. Sometimes, not much of anything to eat actually. Some bread. Some pasta. Some fruit or vegetables from our garden. So, when I came to America, I wanted whatever wasn’t war food. Something special. Something cold. Vanilla ice cream is too plain, but chocolate ice cream…now that lingers in the mouth. That is special." She closed her eyes and savored the moment. Then, she continued. "Eating a chocolate sundae is a momento dolce, a sweet moment, a moment you will remember forever and one day daydream about or recall whenever you need a pleasant thought to cheer you." MJ and I reacted to Signora Bassi’s explanation as only two rambunctious kids could. We started intoning "momento dolce," "momento dolce," "momento dolce" a few dozen times like out-of-control opera singers. Then, we all laughed till we cried.

MJ, always thinking, wanted to capture our first momento dolce. She set up her new camera (which she carried everywhere with her) to take a smile timed photo, a setting on her Nikon that detected when the subjects were smiling and then released the shutter. That momento dolce was not just to last in our minds; it was etched in reality in the framed 16 X 18 inch photograph that was on MJ’s bedroom wall a week later.

Our adult lives veered in different directions, literally. She moved to the East coast and I stayed on the West coast, but we shared our struggles, successes, and failures with each other on weekly hour-long calls. MJ went on to become a noted portrait photographer and even had two of her portraits of famous people, Madeline Albright and Toni Morrison, displayed in a special exhibition entitled Women Influencers in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I went on to become a nurse and marry my college sweetheart.

We did get together once for an adventure tour of the Amazon. MJ promised it would be beautiful and exciting and she needed a break. One night, we two and three other female tour members, got in a rowboat with our tour guide, Jaime, who said we were going to "experience the Amazon nightlife." Jaime told us that taking a rowboat, rather than a motorboat, was preferred for minimal noise. He set a lantern flashlight beside himself on the center seat of a well-used boat and rowed from the tributary our ecolodge was on, across an arm of the Amazon, down the river for a bit, and into a narrow creek with overgrown trees and dense shrubbery everywhere. For minimal disturbance, Jaime turned off the lantern flashlight and wedged a handheld flashlight between his legs while he rowed. He stopped several times, spotlighted something, and then interpreted what we were seeing. He pointed out Titan beetles as big as his hand, scarlet macaws, squirrel monkeys, spotted snakes, a fuzzy sloth hanging from a branch, beautiful owl moths about 6 inches across that looked exactly like their namesakes, and colorful insects whose names I have since forgotten and so much more. Then, Jaime said he wanted us to really experience the Amazon and that he was going to turn off his flashlight. Click. Off it went. We found ourselves in a black, howling, screeching, whistling, rustling, chattering, muggy cocoon. We felt like we had traveled back in time to the dawn of civilization. We were all awestruck. It was definitely a momento dolce,...that is, until Jaime dropped the flashlight, doubled in half and thudded into the bottom of the boat, moaning. Now, all the excitement was in the boat instead of on shore. I was closest to the lantern flashlight; I stretched to reach it and switched it on. Two ladies hovered over Jaime and checked his vitals. He had labored breathing and was in excruciating pain, but there was nothing we could do for him. Someone else switched on the handheld flashlight and directed it toward Jaime so we could observe him. MJ wiggled around Jaime and into his former seat. "Let’s get out of here," she ordered, as she grabbed the oars and adroitly maneuvered the boat around. We headed back to the large arm of the Amazon which had gotten choppy since our initial crossing. We all latched on to the sides of the boat like clawing insects to balance ourselves against the threatening waves that could easily hurl us into the water. The two women who had Jaime duty were restraining him with their legs so he wouldn’t be flung overboard. How far had we traveled? Where was the turn off to our tributary? We couldn’t be sure and a delirious Jaime was no help. Fortunately, however, MJ was born with the Magellan gene and rowed us back to our ecolodge dock with no diversions. We yelled, "Emergency, emergency…get some help" to some tour members we saw walking along the lighted bank. Before too long, several of the lodge staff appeared and carried Jaime away. The five of us ladies went to the great room, which had a bar in one corner, and ordered drinks to soothe our frazzled nerves. We found out the next morning that Jaime had suffered acute appendicitis and was motored at first light to a missionary hospital down river. It was only then, and for the rest of the trip, that we joked about Jaime’s notion of "experiencing the Amazon."

Six months after our South American adventure, I received a late afternoon call from Mrs. O’Malley.

"Are you sitting down?" she asked, after saying, "hello." I was afraid of what was coming next.

"Yes. I am now," I responded, as I took a seat at my desk. What she had to tell me was impossible to believe.

At 11:46 AM on the 27th of April, MJ stepped in front of an Amtrak train speeding at 76 MPH from Alexandria headed to Washington, D.C. Her wallet was found nearby the track with her driver’s license and $20 in it. That is how the authorities were able to identify her so quickly. There was no mistake. The coroner reported that she did not suffer.

Loud shrieks and uncontrollable tears burst out of me. My arms hugged my core and I just kept shouting, "NO! NO! NO! MJ, could not have done this. She wouldn’t!" Then, I was down on the floor, knees to my chest, rocking, violently shaking and heaving, repeating "NO! NO! NO!" My mind and my body could not comprehend the gruesomeness of MJ’s death, the pain and desperation MJ must have suffered to carry out this horrific deed and the new reality of MJ not being in the world any more. It was too much.

MJ’s family and I had self-recriminations for a very long time. What could we have done differently? Did we fail to comprehend veiled admonitions that MJ had snuck into otherwise normal conversations? I examined for memory every conversation we had had recently, but I couldn’t glean even a hint that MJ was despondent. I always thought of MJ as cheerful and optimistic, but maybe I was stuck in the Pink Heart days. I don’t know. What I do know is that I failed her, miserably, since whatever she was hiding, she didn’t feel she could share it with me. Obviously, something private and traumatic had happened to mutate MJ’s optimism into a wish to do away with herself. Probably no one could have stopped stubborn MJ once her mind was made up, but I would have liked to try. I would have reminded her how loved she was and how she made the world a better place.

I will never get over her loss. Never! I choose to keep my best friend active in my life, pretend that she is still here on earth, just as it was when she lived on the East coast and I lived on the West coast. I carried on my days without her until we spoke on the phone and shared our lives together. It’s just in between calls right now. It’s just in between calls every day.

Mrs O’Malley gave me the photos MJ had in her apartment. MJ, me, and Signora Bassi sharing our first momento dolce together. The Pink Hearts singing Christmas carols at the Fairview Senior Center. A magnificent owl moth spotlighted in a rainforest. She lives on. I need her to live on.

"What movie should we see this weekend, MJ?"