Life, according to Mary Stewart, is all a wonderful circle.
Life, according to Mary Stewart, is all a wonderful circle.
“The atmosphere of consideration and respect for every single person makes friendships so easy.”
Connections that bind come in all forms: friends, teachers, spouses, children, parents. Mary Stewart says they come to the forefront most when navigating life’s transitions.
Notes Mary, who now spends about five months of the year at Orchid Island, “None of us really knows how to navigate retirement and getting older. We’re all in a transitional phase.”
Once an art teacher in Baltimore, MD, she recently had an epiphany about the similarities between her former students and the Orchid Island community. “Middle schoolers are newly learning how they can affect life and what they are capable of,” explains Mary. “By the eighth-grade transition, students start to realize they can make their own lives better by killing with kindness.”
And that’s how she sees life at Orchid Island. “Here, even if someone already knows other people, they are very open to making new friendships, not just acquaintances,” explains Mary. “The atmosphere of consideration and respect for every single person makes friendships so easy. I honestly think I have friends here that are as close as some I’ve had for 30 years. I’m going back to Baltimore soon and am starting to feel like I did in elementary school when I didn’t want to say goodbye for the summer.”
When the past informs the present.
Much of Mary’s life took the turns it did because of her bond with her highly supportive and adventurous father, who was a doctor and Assistant Dean of the medical school in Chicago. Later he started and was the founding Dean of the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, Ohio. She grew up bicycling around campus, feeling an intense sense of belonging. Naturally, she went on to college, but didn’t realize how much she wanted to teach until her father sent her some old school files, and she saw one that said her preferred profession was elementary school teacher.
“Oh, that’s what I really want to do,” she recalls thinking. She had similar jolts of clarity later in life, when she and her husband, Bob, visited Vero Beach, where her father and sister had moved. Bob was golfing at Orchid Island, so Mary decided to look at a house.
“I just had a sense that this was exactly where I wanted to be,” she shares. Mary asked Bob to take a look, they put in a bid on a Monday, and two days later became sudden Florida homeowners. At the time, both were still employed in Baltimore, so they rented out their new house for a few years during season. Mary was the first to leave her job and begin the move, and that’s when she discovered a connection of another kind.
“When we moved in, we saw a lot of personal possessions were still there,” says Mary. “We came across a golf bag from the Dorset Field Club in Vermont, which is where my father had once belonged. My husband said, ‘Bob Baldwin... Mary, I played against him as a member guest at Dorset Vermont.’ Which meant that the previous owner of the house had played golf against my father in Vermont. It gives me goose bumps to this day. It’s like there are things that just happen for a reason.”
“When I get into this kind of conversation, I say that what everyone who's diagnosed with cancer needs to know is that the day they're diagnosed is a day to celebrate because that's the day they start getting better.”
The kindness of strangers.
Mary’s husband, son and daughter come to Orchid Island as often as their “other lives” allow, but she is solo much of the time. Good thing that a few friendly invites led her to discover pickleball. “I had never played before, and now I play as often as five times a week,” enthuses Mary. “I thought I’d play golf more, but pickleball takes less time and it’s faster paced. I feel like I've had a real workout when I'm finished—it's my new passion.”
By embracing pickleball and other sports, Mary learned something else about why making friends at Orchid Island was easy: Kindness is part of the culture.
“The first thing that surprised me was when someone called and asked me to join them for a round of golf, and they weren’t even people I knew very well,” she recalls. “There’s no judgement here either. After pickleball, a lot of us meet up at the Beach Club Turtle Bar. Last Friday, none of us recognized each other because the last time we’d seen one another, we were all sweaty and gross with no makeup. We all just laughed about it.”
Doing her own part to return the kindness she sees, Mary, who has gone through cancer treatment herself, quietly meets with others who may be having a tough time of it and determines how she can help them.
“When I get into this kind of conversation, I say that what everyone who's diagnosed with cancer needs to know is that the day they're diagnosed is a day to celebrate because that's the day they started getting better.”
Connections with renewed purpose.
While Mary had taken painting workshops before—notably in France with her father, who was enthusiastic about all things new—she’s now moved from teaching to doing in a much stronger way.
“Last year, I completed seven or eight paintings,” she says. “This year I took a portrait painting workshop here. I told my daughter about it, and now she is sending me photos of her children so I can paint them!”
Painting their faces will undoubtedly let her feel their presence when they aren’t at Orchid Island. Walking her golden retrievers in Baltimore evokes a reverse Orchid-Island association. “To me, Orchid Island is a golden-retriever type of community,” she says of the breed’s reputation for always looking like it’s smiling.
An average golfer, Mary also discovered that teeing off with her husband spotlighted another of life’s magical interconnections. Before her father passed, he had made one request of Mary: that she promise to learn to play golf.
“He said I should learn because Bob and I would have so much fun playing together," she says. “So, I fulfilled my promise, and we do. Bob was down here last week, his golf guest canceled at the last minute, and we ended up playing a lot. It was beautiful in the afternoon. The sun was streaming across the fairway...it was gorgeous. And I just looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Dad.’"