Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here
A mother, lost and found
Mary Lou Quinlan called her mother every day. That’s a boast few of us can match. And it is a clue to Mary Lou’s sense of loss when her mother died, in 2006.
It was an enormous loss, a separation of two best friends that Mary Lou has struggled to accept.
But her mother, Mary Finlayson, found a way to be with Mary Lou, even after death. Mary kept a “God Box,” a place where she put life’s everyday happenings and records of her friends’ and family’s needs. There were prayers for her children’s success and prayers for friends who needed help.
Mary wrote them all down on bits of paper, store receipts, Post-It notes, even a paper towel, saving memories with instant action, just tucking them away.
The night before Mary’s funeral, Mary Lou, her brother, Jack, and her father, Ray, were sitting on a porch at the Finlaysons’ Florida home, picking at their takeout dinners. “Where’s Mom’s God Box?”
Jack asked – and they didn’t know.
Mary Lou began searching in bureau drawers and closets, all the corners where the box could possibly be. Finally, she found, not one but seven containers – boxes, a jar, a basket – filled with notes.
The God Box became the inspiration for a book and a play that will be on the Bucks County Playhouse stage Oct. 18, “The God Box: A Daughter’s Story.
In the play, Mary Lou finds the God Box, the collective name for all of the containers. “This is Mom’s love letter to us in a thousand pieces,” she exclaims. “This is like getting her back.”
Mary jotted down the notes for 20 years, starting in 1986, the year Mary Lou and her husband, Joe, bought their house in Uhlerstown, along the Delaware Canal in Bucks County. The first note prays that they made the right decision to buy the house.
“Joe was a Levittown guy. He needed an anchor back home,” Mary Lou said in a phone interview last week. The old stone home was a retreat from business in New York. She was raised in a Philadelphia row home and she attended Catholic schools.
And the notes went on. When Jack was considering a move with his job to Hong Kong, Mary wrote, “Please let Jack and Sandy be in unison for change of jobs.” When Mary Lou was exhausted and ready to quit a high-powered job, she didn’t tell Mom. But in the God Box notes, Mary Lou discovered that Mary knew how desperate she was.
A universal every-daughter’s mom, who was there when she was needed, Mary stands out among devoted moms because she wrote so much down to help her children move on.
Often, she prayed for her children’s success and worried about changes. She made notes through Jack’s career, promotions to relocations and company buyouts. Mary Lou found one on the back of a Home Depot shopping list for petunias and potting soil.
Mary watched Mary Lou grow in her career. She was advertising director at Avon before becoming chief executive officer for the NWAyer ad agency, the ultimate branding company.
Mary Lou founded her own company, Just Ask a Woman. That company helps blue chip organizations in their marketing by stressing that a woman’s choices are a reliable base for marketing to everyone. The company has advised such brands as Wells Fargo, American Express, Estee Lauder, GlaxoSmithKline, IKEA and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Mary must have been a role model for her daughter. “My mother was a working women all her life,” Mary Lou said in “The God Box.” “Her first job was as a secretary at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and her first boss was a young officer named Richard Nixon. Yes, that Richard Nixon.” Over the years, Mary worked as a secretary and office manager for businesses in downtown Philadelphia.
She was, as moms tend to be, a good listener, and Mary Lou learned that strength from her. It has helped her in all of her pursuits, including writing. She has written four books and articles for Real Simple, MORE, and O, the Oprah magazine.
“The God Box, Sharing my mother’s gift of faith, love and letting go,” became a New York Times bestseller in three weeks and publication rights have been bought in Brazil, China, Spain, Korea, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.
The God Box Project has developed into a series of short films, a mobile app and the one-woman play Mary Lou performs around the country with all proceeds going to local women’s cancer, hospice and education charities. The play was co-written with LAByrinth Theater director and playwright Martha Wollner.
Mary Lou has raised over $150,000 for charity with her touring production, complete with stage effects like music and video. She has performed the play 30 times.
Although it emphasizes her mother’s Catholic faith, it’s more inspirational and spiritual than religious. It’s been performed in Heritage Conservancy’s Aldie Mansion for the Bucks County Women in Business, in synagogues and convents and on theater stages.
For 20 years, Mary and Ray were snowbirds – Fort Myers, Fla., in winter, Uhlerstown in summer. When Mary Lou returned home after her mother’s funeral, she found three God Boxes in the room where her parents stayed. Discovery after discovery inspired Mary Lou to spread her mother’s voice to others. In that house, where mer mother spent so much time, Mary Lou found a way to turn scraps of paper into an entertaining, often funny, story and put it on stage.
A benefit performance of “The God Box, A Daughter’s Story” will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18 at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main St., New Hope.
The performance will benefit the preservation and improvement efforts of the Friends of the Delaware Canal as well as the Benevolent Care Fund of Chandler Hall in Newtown.
Tickets may be purchased at the Bucks County Playhouse box office and web site or by calling 215-862-2021.
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