Last October, Mary Teller delivered a baby boy. She and her husband, Jack, named him Grady Augustine. They eagerly introduced him to his 3-year-old sister, Siena Luz. Nine months later, Mary Teller succumbed to an aggressive lymphoma and was buried in the rich earth within sight of the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains in her native Virginia.
Her painful but joy-filled struggle from diagnosis to passing and then burial and beyond had a profound effect on hundreds of people, maybe thousands, maybe more.
I did not know Mary Teller, but I know her mom, dad, and brothers, and so we went along to the wake, the funeral, a massive party, and then followed the internment from afar.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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This is what we saw.
They delivered Mary’s casket to her childhood home in Great Falls, Virginia. They placed her under a white tent at the end of a mulch path that stretched way back across a wooden bridge deep into the woods of her family’s property, where Mary and Jack celebrated their wedding reception less than five years ago. They strung lights from the trees. There were candles and flowers everywhere. There was magic and providence in the air.
We waited an hour to arrive at the casket, then to greet mother Betsy, father Bill, husband Jack, and brothers Eddy, Rich, and Phil.
When we finally arrived at the casket, I looked back and saw the line extended as far back as where we began. This was a two-hour wait to mourn the passing of a 26-year-old wife, mom, aunt, daughter, and friend who passed away saying the words “so blessed, so blessed.”
At the end of the wake, a double line of mourners stood with candles as Mary was carried back into the house to a makeshift chapel where her family and friends kept an all-night vigil, saying prayers and singing hymns.
They say the next day over a thousand people packed into St. Dominic’s Church in Washington, D.C., where Jack and Mary were married. Jack stood at the front of the church, as he had five years before, once more watching his bride come down the aisle—this time to be united with the Lord instead of him. We were there. It was standing room only. Thirty priests concelebrated the Mass, including Jack’s two brothers, who are Dominican priests.
Mary’s brother, Rich Moss, a teacher at The Heights School, eulogized her. He said, in the depths of her sickness and pain, Mary would say, “He is making me holy.” Through it all, not only did her deep faith deepen, but she maintained her sense of humor. As Rich said, “When words went, gestures remained. In one instance, as we celebrated a very simple movement of a hand, Mary looked at me, smiled, and said, “I’ve still got it.” And all along she murmured, “so blessed, so blessed.”
This column is about Mary Teller to be sure, but it is about more than Mary Teller. It comes with a question. How did this happen? How was there such a massive outpouring of love and grace? We did not know Mary. We never met her. Many others there did not know Mary. The huge crowd was from overlapping circles: The Heights School, Oakcrest School, the University of Dallas, Opus Dei, the Dominicans, and more. Putting all that aside, there is a secret that we must ponder. How did this happen?
I think it has to do with this: Mary’s mother and father, the ever-gracious Bill and Betsy Moss, did more than form a family. They—and the Tellers—seem to have founded a family. I think there is a profound distinction here, a distinction I will ponder and ponder and ponder. It is as if the Mosses and the Tellers possess a 100-year vision. They founded dynasties, overlapping dynasties, that will last and reverberate through the ages, and the dynasties merged into Mary and Jack’s marriage and thus into their own small family.
We are called to form families, to get married and have children. This is hard enough in this day and age. But we are called to something more, and that is to found families, to intentionally found generations that are connected and know each other.
When we think of dynasties connected to each other we often must rely on secular examples. I think of the Kennedy family. Joe and Rose Kennedy founded a family. Perhaps they did it for power and influence, but they also did it for the virtue of public service. One wishes the intense Catholic faith of Rose had carried on through the generations, though you could see it in her son Bobby and especially in her daughter Eunice. And maybe you can still see it in some of her grandchildren. But what you definitely see is a family as a family moving together through the ages.
I think this is what Mary’s and Jack’s parents did. They each founded a family. How else would so many people turn out for Mary Teller? It is not just her or Jack and their circle of friends. There was something else happening here. I intend to find out.
Mary was buried on the third day. They are calling these three days “Mary’s Triduum.” The family bought a large plot of land out toward Front Royal, Virginia, within sight of the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains, sacred land in our American story. The family intends for all of them to rest there one day.
More than two hundred people attended, all dressed in white, as Mary loved a “fiesta blanca,” but also to symbolize unity in a day of light following the previous day of darkness. Jack’s father, Dan, called the burial, “Jack’s magnum opus in honor of his beloved.” They gathered around the gravesite in silence. She was buried under a shady pecan tree, in the red, Virginia earth which lay piled beside the grave.
They said prayers and sang hymns. As a pious nod to Jack’s ancestors, they even said the Jewish prayers of Kaddish. Family and friends joined in the actual burial of Mary. The shovels were turned upside down as a symbol of the difficult task that is burying those we love. Jack stood atop the mound of dirt, sweating and shoveling until the last clod was placed. The shoveling lasted through nine hymns. Bill and Betsy sank a cross of oak made by Jack’s father, Dan.
And then the burial party processed, two-by-two, up the hill to a barn where a newly ordained Dominican priest said the Mass. There is a photograph of this procession that seems from another age.
What the mourners did not know, and what Mary’s mother, Betsy, told them later, was that a kind of miracle occurred as they were burying Mary. Among Mary’s favorite songs in high school was a country song called “If I Die Young.” The lyrics include, “Lord, make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother. She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors.”
As they buried Mary, a massive double rainbow appeared and stayed for almost an hour. It shone down on her mother, her family, and all of her friends.
Mary Teller was so blessed.
[Photo credit: Kaity Chaikowsky]