I first met Mary Thienes Schunemann in a Saturday morning African dance class, in the early 1990s when my kids were tiny. This dance class was my desperate outlet to let loose, the only time I didn’t have several mouths to feed, noses and bottoms to wipe, and babies and toddlers clinging to me. The class comprised an exuberant community of expressive and generous women, some of whom would remain life-long friends.
Mary was wearing a blue leotard and a colorful lapa of African cloth. The first thing I noticed about her was her flexible spine, which undulated in all directions as she moved with passion and grace across the floor to the polyrhythms of the djembe. Later I found out she’d recently moved to Milwaukee to teach kindergarten at the public Waldorf school, the first of its kind in the nation. I immediately recognized her as a sister-soul, and our paths would cross many times over the coming years. We each devoted ourselves to holistic education, the arts as healing, and an idealistic belief that we could make the planet better.
I soon discovered that in addition to early childhood teaching, her most profound talent was music and singing. Our school hired her as our music teacher, and she taught all three of my kids. She brought beautiful sounds out of the students, and taught them songs from around the world, songs that would become part of our family repertoire on car trips and at bedtimes. One memorable summer I attended her week-long workshop on singing, which in true Mary fashion, also incorporated movement, poetry, simple and wholesome lunches, and deep soul connections among the participants.
What did Mary’s voice sound like? Cliches be damned, how can I not mention angels? Clear, lilting, a touch of vibrato, joyful, subtle, a dancing, nimble voice. Never heavy, soulful and penetrating.
One year at our school’s holiday fair, I observed Mary in conversation with one of the vendors, Sven Schunemann, who had a roomful of beautiful “flow forms,” indoor and outdoor water fountains shaping water into loops and spirals and lemniscates. Their focus on each other was so intense I felt compelled to leave the room and give them privacy. Later, they would marry and have two daughters, Aurora and Allegra.
I saw their family a few more times during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. We were among a small but devoted group of Dennis Kucinich volunteers, and the family drove all the way out from their rural community to the meetings in downtown Milwaukee. Joined once again by our idealism, we knew Dennis was not the most popular candidate, but that it was critical for America to hear his voice and views.
How could I know this would be the last time I would see Mary? We conversed via email, and occasionally connected by phone about various tasks and projects. At one point, she asked me to come out to her town and teach a weekly yoga class, but I couldn’t find a way to fit it into my schedule. When I heard about cancer spreading through her body, I put a photo of her and her little girls, ages 5 and 7, on my refrigerator. I sent her prayers daily, through song, movement, and wordless thoughts.
I never visited Mary during her illness. Somehow I felt it was not my place, that I wasn’t really a close friend, that she needed quiet and privacy with her family. Plus, she lived fifty minutes away, I was busy…you know how it goes. So it was with that particular regret that I received the news of her passing, by email, while I was abroad. I couldn’t attend her funeral, I couldn’t sit at her three-day, round the clock vigil, and I would never see her again.
Mary taught me not to let that happen again. Now I understand that the ill and dying need visitors, and the support of friends near and far. Soul-sisters who rarely see each other can still be of use. Next time, I won’t worry about being intrusive. Next time, I’ll put aside that to-do list and make the drive out.
I called my daughters in New York on their cell phones to tell them the news, the words traveling by scratchy satellite, entering their busy student lives. What do they remember of this former teacher? Her beautiful silk scarves, her array of musical instruments, all the songs she knew, and that voice. She disciplined the children by letting the music work on them. Instead of focusing on misbehavior, she guided them in song, and eventually the whole class would be swept along. My daughters, Meiko and Katja, heard the news with sadness and surprise, and then we went on to tell me about their classes, what they did that weekend, the dumpling restaurant in the East Village….going on with living.
I attended Mary’s memorial on her 47th birthday, October 7, and had the honor of performing a couple of songs with other friends. We celebrated Mary with music, dance, stories, and flowers and artwork everywhere. One friend reminded us that the body dies when it no longer serves the spirit, when the spirit needs to be liberated from the body in order to do its work. Mary was full of projects, ideas, visions, and plans. Her children overflow with vitality, her marriage was loving and rich. How did Mary, who devoted her life to beauty, finally let go of her body, her passions? How do we live and love completely, then let go completely, totally, finally?
As we age, we experience more life, and we let go more. Each time a child leaves for college, I mourn. When it’s so painful to separate from my teens and young adults, how much more difficult was it for Mary to leave her little girls?
In my gut, I know that we never quite leave our loved ones. My mother and father abide in me still, and even though my daughters are a thousand miles away in their bubbles of age-appropriate self-absorption, I know they feel my presence. When we muse on those from whom we’re apart, we unite in that moment. How is it the phone rings at the precise moment I’m thinking about calling that person?
Perhaps Mary is present more than ever. I try to imagine the beauty that surrounds her now, freed from earthly limits. Mary completed her last cd,”I Still Have Joy,” in the week before her passing, as her gift to all of us. And now her singing reaches beyond our children, beyond our school, and beyond the earth to fill all the spheres. Blessings, love, and deep thanks, Mary.