Remembering the Bread Lady

Jim Day
Published on February 26, 2014
For years, Mary Ripley was a familiar and welcome sight delivering up kindness on her bicycle. 

The Bread Lady was in her early 60s when she first rolled into my life.

One day, while still a total stranger to me, Mary Ripley left hanging from my mailbox a delicious loaf of bread that she had baked in her home.

She left no calling card. She did not want recognition or even gratitude for her random act of kindness. She just wanted to do some good and spread some cheer.

That was just Mary's way.

When I later learned that Mary was the goodwill cyclist who pedalled to my door on her old, well-traveled bike, I made a point of tracking her down. She explained she selected my home for the simple reason that my then 11-year-old son Jack, sitting on the front porch humming a tune, caught her attention as she rode by on her bicycle.

"He seemed to have music in him,'' she told me.

Well, Mary seemed to have gold in her heart. I would go on to discover that many others shared this view.

Mary spent more than a dozen years baking thousands of loaves of bread, delivering loaf after loaf to one home or another. She didn't ring the bell or knock on the door, because she did not care to have people gush over her generosity.

She wanted only to give. She did not want to receive. That was just Mary's way.

Even in work, Mary was all about giving. As a caregiver, she gave not only care but also quality companionship and true friendship.

If anything came close to Mary's generous spirit, it was her feisty nature and endless energy.

I would marvel at seeing the 60ish Mary bicycle past my home on a blustery, winter day making her way to work. She also would bike to the store, clutching bags of groceries and her handle bars in her hands.

I offered to drive her to work on those particularly nasty winter days and also to pick up groceries, notably heavy bags of flour that she used to bake bread for others, but she would always decline the offer.

The bike, she would tell me time and again, got her to where she needed to go.

A diagnosis in March 2012 of the beastly progressive, neuromuscular disease ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) was not even enough to leave Mary looking to others for help.

She stubbornly refused my open-ended offers of assistance. And when I brought her some lobster, I unwittingly put her to work. A couple of days later, a bag was hanging from my door containing a loaf of bread, soup and muffins - all made by Mary who was already showing the early effects of ALS.

Mary and her husband, Gary, separated years ago, but they remained legally married and also maintained a unique relationship. Gary stepped up to provide loving care during the final two years of Mary's journey.

But she did not look to others for help. She certainly didn't ask. In fact, she did not enter the hospital until three weeks shy of her death with ALS having already taken a crippling toll on her body and health.

Earlier in her illness, Mary told several people she was determined to take matters into her own hands before the illness became too debilitating. In the end, ALS would end Mary's life.

While Mary surely did not welcome the thought of increased pain and reduced mobility as her disease progressed, I believe she was even more adverse to the idea that as she became more ill, she would need ever-increasing help to get through each of her last days. The need to lean heavily on others simply would not be acceptable to Mary.

She did not want to impose, even out of the necessity of receiving proper care. She just didn't want to be a bother.

That was just Mary's way.

Mary died Sunday at age 64. Family and close friends were gathered at her bedside to say their final goodbyes.

But many who were on the receiving end of Mary's kindness - a goodly number to be sure - did not know this woman was dreadfully ill. They did not have the opportunity to offer their help as many most assuredly would have done.

Surely, a spirited path would have been beaten to Mary's door if a call were put out. Mary, of course, would never hear of it.

Mary wanted to donate her body to science - a final gift from a generous soul. Unfortunately, her body was not accepted.

Out of respect to Mary's firmly stated wishes, there will not be a wake, nor a funeral or even an obituary to mark the end of a marvelous life.

Perhaps, even in death, Mary did not want to burden anyone.

That was just Mary's way.