There was nothing remarkable about the old woman who worked the admission counter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No one knew much about her except for the name listed on her name tag, Mary, and that she worked at that counter for decades. Co-workers assumed she must have had dire financial struggles since working a low-waged job for all those years couldn’t possibly be her choice. Many took notice of her peculiar habit of cycling through the same four different outfits, which some even had fun “betting” on which one she would wear that day. For those that worked alongside her, it was suspected that her health must have been poor due to a slight tremble, which became more pronounced through the years.
What people didn’t know about Mary was that working at the museum was her choice and working there was perhaps the greatest joy of her life. When Mary was younger she once had dreams of being an artist but life took her on a different path. It was a path she still appreciated because in her mind if she couldn’t be an artist, the next best thing was being surrounded by the greatest collection of art in the country. The truth is, since Mary never really cared about money, she felt blessed to do what she did for so many years and still live in the greatest city in the world.
Though she lived in the very same apartment, her neighborhood changed drastically over the decades. As familiar faces moved out, she became increasingly isolated as the neighborhood seemed to slowly deteriorate. Street crime started to become routine and left her in a constant state of anxiety. Eventually, she would only leave her apartment to go to work, get groceries, and attend medical appointments.
One-day Mary’s supervisor asked her to do something other than work the admission counter. After one of the younger clerks complained to the supervisor about the “musky” smell of Mary’s clothes, instead of sending Mary home; he asked her to clean out an old storage room in the museum basement that was nearly forgotten about since it was in such a poor state. Mary, being the diligent worker she always was, took the assignment seriously and surprised the supervisor by how much she accomplished in just one afternoon. Mary offered to clean the room out entirely if she could be given a full week to do so. He was happy to grant this request.
Mary was delighted and found the project immensely satisfying since it involved her going through old boxes and finding dated documents and even a few dusty paintings. One day she came across a box that seemed different from the rest. The inside was mingled with letters and envelopes, one of which included a little black book. The book wasn’t titled and seemed to be a handwritten journal of some sort. Something about the book made it stand out from all of the other items she came across buried in storage. At first she thought to inform her supervisor of the discovery, but knowing his lack of appreciation for the history of art; she assumed he would just dismiss it as an “old ledger” that should be disposed. Mary felt there was something about this little black book and it’s faded journal entries that deserved more attention so she quietly kept it for herself.
The next day, Mary stopped by the Records Office of the museum to see if anyone could figure out the origins of this mysterious book. She heard that the Director of the office specialized in having historic items appraised and after decades of experience, had a natural talent for estimating the value of such items. When the Director investigated the book, he noticed the initials “A.E.R.” written at the end of a number of entries that were still legible.
“Where did you find this?” the Director questioned suspiciously.
Mary was always an honest woman, but in this instance, she decided stretching the truth a bit would yield a better answer since telling him she found it in the museum’s storage room would mean she would have to return it.
“This was a gift from my late sister. We were never really close, but because of where I work, she must have thought I would appreciate it,” replied Mary.
This simple answer seemed to satisfy the Director as he attempted to convince her to sell him the book. Assuming perhaps how simple minded Mary appeared to be; he offered her $5,000 for it, and even increased the offer to $20,000; however, Mary made no such gesture of approval. Uncomfortable with his pursuit, Mary told him she would think about it over the weekend and come back on Monday with an answer. The Director knew exactly to whom the book belonged, but kept that to himself since the value of the book is probably twenty or even thirty times greater than the amount he offered Mary if it had been auctioned.
Mary still sensed the book deserved a better fate. As for now, it would remain with her.
Mary spent most of the weekend wondering why so much was offered for this book? To uncover why, the only thing she could think to do was try and read through it. The ink on many of the pages was faded but the longer she looked at it; she discovered that under the right amount of light, she could faintly read through some of the text. Mary was in fact able to read through several of the entries, which for many of them, she felt existed a direct connection with the author. Whoever AER was, she painted the picture of a woman who lived in fear of her surroundings but who ultimately felt a higher calling to present herself as being in control and in harmony with her vocation.
“Each day it feels as if the world is becoming darker and feelings of despair hang heavier. Much has changed over these past few years but I’ve made it a sacred duty to get up every morning ready to lead and do so with grace. I didn’t ask for this life, but it is the one the Lord has crafted for me so I must persevere...”
In Mary’s heart, she knew very personally what it meant to be afraid of how the world has changed, and yet, still continue to do your job. She had no idea what AER’s profession was, but feelings of isolation was something she lived through each day. Nevertheless, AER’s viewing of her fate as a sacred duty was something Mary never thought about for herself. Reflecting on this, perhaps her quiet life was a unique one that she was always meant to live. As she continued to read on, another passage spoke to her:
“He has betrayed me in a way that has cut me at my core and will never be mended. I can’t but help feel as if I am again a prisoner of my fate and have no recourse other than to quietly move forward with a smile. This was not the life I was promised nor was it the one I intended for myself when I was younger. I cannot stop thinking what my life could have been if I felt the agency to direct it where I truly wanted...”
When Mary was in school she studied the arts thinking she would become an artist herself. When it started to become clear to her that no schooling could replicate the natural gift her favorite artists had possessed; she shifted her education to the intriguing world of art history. She didn’t think a background in art history would turn into some well-paying job, but she thought she could still perhaps become a curator at a museum - at least that was what school counselors told her. In reality, Mary loved the world of art so much that studying it felt more like a calling that she could not ignore; and yet, as AER had written, her “fate” as a simple clerk felt like a betrayal.
By the time the weekend was over, the journal would become one of the most life affirming works Mary ever read. The author’s words deeply moved her and would help motivate her to approach her life differently. As AER learned, her life was a gift intended just for her and to wallow on what could have been only clouded the beauty of it.
The following Monday, Mary decided to take the Director’s offer. In truth, just being able to read through some of the book’s entries felt more meaningful of a gift to her. She already had an idea on what she could do with the money, and so, Mary thought of the transaction as congruent. The Director always expected Mary to give him the book, and since he knew the true value, he didn’t mind paying $20,000 for it. Personally, he felt pity for Mary and thought maybe it was enough for her to finally spend her remaining years at rest.
Eventually Mary would end up leaving her job at the museum, but in the present moment, she felt a calling to perform one last duty. In addition to the initials cited in the journal; she noticed an address that appeared more than once being described as some kind of cabin refuge in northern NY. Thinking that the address may have some connection to the owner of the little black book; she decided to write a letter to AER herself.
First, she felt the need to apologize for reading something so personal that was not meant for others. More importantly however, was expressing how much those entries moved her and convinced her to be bold enough to do something she thought would honor AER. Mary would also go on to include the check for $20,000 with specific instructions to pass it on to the author’s descendants, pleading for the funds to be given to someone to help them not be afraid to live the life they were truly meant for, and in the words of Mary, “not the life they felt forced upon them”.
The letter would eventually reach the cabin address. Whoever first received it must have been personally moved by Mary’s request, and in their nobility, added their own funds to the effort even though they had no connection to the journal and somehow helped move it along to the right place. It would take many months, but after the letter reached the original cabin address, it was then re-routed to a woman named Anna. The letter would end up at the desk of the great granddaughter of the person Mary knew as AER.
Anna was in her 60s and was an accomplished educator that recently retired from academic life, but who still had the means to make things happen. She didn’t know much about Mary, but she could tell from Mary’s words how pure of a soul she must have been. It only took a few weeks for Anna to respond to Mary, but when she did; she invited Mary to her home so that they could discuss the creation of a new foundation for young women that would be centered on women who feel they didn’t achieve their professional goals from formal education and would be granted a second chance to do something audacious. The check was a “lovely start”, Anna wrote, but she thought it wasn’t bold enough. Anna decided to personally invest her own money into the foundation. She knew it would be the only rightful way to meet Mary’s request and honor the memory of her great grandmother, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.
Anna’s letter to Mary would never be received. No one knew what happened to Mary after she left the museum, or her apartment, but in her final shift when asked what she would do next, she replied:
“I’m going to be bold enough to live the way I want”…