TELANDER: Mary Melberg, nearly 108, loved her Cubs to the end
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com March 26, 2013 9:45PM
Updated: February 17, 2014 2:14PM
I’m not afraid of graveyards.
So standing here alone on this cold, gray day beside Mary Melberg’s fresh grave in this cemetery isn’t upsetting or grim.
It’s peaceful. It’s full of promise.
As it should be.
Mary, formerly the oldest living Cubs fan on the planet, was a sweetheart. Not long ago, I received an announcement from her Cottonwood Estates retirement home in Plano, Texas, that there would be a celebration upon the occasion of Mary’s 108th birthday.
The festivities would be held in the cafeteria on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, as usual, with Buck Criner of Classic Melodies out of Crandall, Texas, providing the giddy-up. All the usual diners would be there.
Mary missed the party by a bit, passing away quietly with her family around her at the age of 107 years and 353 days. And one World Series championship.
That was in 1908, when Mary was 3. At her 106th birthday party two years ago, she had told me she didn’t remember any of it. Fair enough. Thus, like the rest of us, the Oldest Cubs Fan lived a life of yearning, of almost, of wait till next year.
She was born in Virginia, moved to Chicago in the 1920s and began going to Cubs games at Wrigley Field. The year 1929 was a big one for Mary, whose maiden name is Lawrence: She became an official ‘‘Die Hard Cubs Fan,’’ according to the card presented to her years later, and married fellow Cubs nut Fred Melberg. The couple had one child, Fred Jr. Mary outlived them both by decades.
Her Cubs infatuation sustained her.
‘‘Oh, they’re gonna win this year,’’ she said firmly in 2011. ‘‘Oh, yes.’’
A year later, on her 107th birthday, we talked on the phone.
‘‘Yep, this is the year!’’ Mary said.
Why, I wanted to know.
‘‘Because they’re good, very good!’’
I chuckle as I recall that. There is nobody for as far as I can see in this wooded cemetery. I passed a couple of working men on the way in, stopped to ask one gravedigger if he could decode the map they had given me at the office to help me find Mary’s grave.
He gave me directions, and here is the fresh earth of her resting spot, next to her son and his wife and beside Fred Sr., whom she lived almost a half-century without.
It takes a special kind of woman to have stayed as bold, directed and happy as Mary was. When she was in hospice care shortly before her death, granddaughter Jennifer Anderson told her, ‘‘Gramma, you’re not going to be here much longer.’’
‘‘What?’’ Mary cried.
Jennifer explained, as protocol at the end suggests.
‘‘Nope,’’ Mary said. ‘‘I’m a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, and I’m gonna be here a long time!’’
‘‘I laughed,’’ Jennifer recalled. ‘‘She had a drop of Cherokee in her.’’
But she bled Cubbie blue. She wore Cubs hats and had autographed balls from players and, at age 78, went on a Cubs cruise and met Harry Caray, Bill Buckner and Ryne Sandberg, whom she had a crush on until the end.
Of course, you know the Cubs aren’t very good as we enter the 2013 season. A World Series championship is nowhere on the horizon. How long would Mary have had to live to see the biggest trophy of all? Five more years? Ten? A hundred and five?
Hi, Mary, I find myself saying. Man, what a life you had! Born before the Model T, driven in the hearse on your final ride, around Wrigley Field — all four corners — and then here to your resting spot at Memorial Park in Skokie.
I worked summers in high school at the Peoria cemetery with my pals Bill Blair and Fred Jackson. Our job was to set up fallen tombstones and pull weeds, but we often took breaks on hot afternoons, lying on cool marble slabs or under the many oak trees, gazing off at the distant Illinois River.
I knew all the stones — the big ones, anyway. Knew them by name. Worthington. Adams. Sweat. McAllister. And they seemed like friends, dependable as, well, stone.
Here nearby are Twitchell, Hans Hansen, ‘‘Gramps’’ Samuel M. Bash, Walden, Wendt, Westbrook, Cain.
These are your pals now, Mary. Some of the rest of us will follow you, no doubt, watching the Cubs, hoping, moving on, out and up.
‘‘At the end, I was holding her hand,’’ Jennifer said. ‘‘And she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Jennifer, I’m an angel now, and I’m not human anymore.’ I said, ‘OK, Gramma.’ I should have asked her what she saw, but I didn’t. They tell you to do that in hospice books.’’
I can guess what she saw because the dying process was a good thing, just ‘‘amazing,’’ as Jennifer said.
Something like a home run to win it all in Game 7. Cubs are champs! Hooray!
Sweet dreams, Mary.