Musical Memoir - I hope you dance
There are people who walk in and out of your life and then there are those who walk in, take your hand and teach you to dance. Mary Lou Bean was one of those people. I had worked at Variety Village as a lifeguard and swim instructor for a couple of years before meeting Mary Lou. I loved my job. Loved my colleagues and most importantly loved the children, adults, and families I was privileged to serve. Until I breathe my last breath I can say with full confidence the people I worked with and for at Variety Village were some of the most incredible humans I have ever met. There was a common denominator of joy, compassion, gratitude, and unconditional acceptance that seemed to exist at the core of every instructor, coach, and staff member. Children with Downs Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, traumatic injuries, Global Delays, and a gamut of other various abilities were all championed to do and be their best. It was a place where the potential of every person was exposed and celebrated.
I first met Mary Lou when my supervisor suggested I help out in an integrated program for children ages 3 - 5 called Kindersport. A student at the time I was eager to make money, loved little kids and jumped at the opportunity. Mary Lou was the founder of the Kindersport program that blended physical, developmental, and social programming for children with various abilities in an integrated environment. At the time, the program was progressive as many children with disabilities were segregated and isolated from mainstream education and recreation. Integration was a new concept and Mary Lou was passionate about the value integration provided to all participants.
As a new member of the Kindersport team, I watched in awe of Mary Lou‘s ability to isolate the unique needs of every single child registered in the program. Some were shy, some rambunctious, some needed structure, others needed freedom to stretch their wings… ALL of them had potential. Mary Lou knew every one of those kids like her own. I was privileged to watch as she drew out that potential, polished it gently, and made each child shine.
Beyond her influence at Variety Village Mary Lou was known and loved by many members of the small community of Cliffcrest. Nestled atop the Scarborough Bluffs the community boasted mature trees, views of Lake Ontario, and quaint wartime houses that seemed to attract individuals and families who loved and appreciated nature and water. Walking through the community with Mary Lou was always an adventure (and a commitment). There was no moving quickly as she stopped to speak with every passerby. What for many would be a 20-minute walk, took Mary Lou an hour. Her investment of time in people was immeasurable.
Having the pleasure of being hosted at her home on numerous occasions for lunch and long walks I dreamed of someday living in a home like hers. It was June 1996 when she called me to say she had found the perfect house for me one street over from her. I was elated, called the agent, and booked an appointment.
Mary Lou and I met at the corner of Brooklawn and Sloley to walk together to what she had described as "This is the house you have been waiting for". Walking past a long hedge carved in the shape of a caterpillar (a community legend) up the stairs and through the front door I found myself confused. I was staring at orange shag carpet, an original 1940 kitchen, and heavy brown curtains. The truth was I thought my friend had lost her mind. I knew the home was owned by the original owners Mr. and Mrs. Tibbles 91 and 88 respectively but I didn’t realize nothing had been updated since the '60s. I suspect Mary Lou caught a glimpse of my expression and gently nudged me through the threshold of the doorway. "Come on," she said. "You have to see this." I stepped forward as Mary Lou drew back the heavy curtains to reveal oversized windows that gazed over a meticulously cared-for perennial garden. "Look at the potential," she said. I paused long enough to digest what I was looking at. As I was pondering she grabbed my hand, bent down, and peeled back the orange shag carpet to expose beautiful oak hardwood. She pointed to the 1940’s Moffat stove as if it alone was reason enough to buy this house. Slowly as I tried to embrace her enthusiasm I drew back every dark brown curtain to expose the oversized windows that seemed to inhale deeply and exhale gratitude as I shook them free from their confinement. As the dust scattered through the air I could hear her beckon to me. “Come quickly, look at this!” She was standing on the landing of the stairs, gazing down on the backyard. “It’s beautiful isn’t it?” As I moved to join her on the landing the floorboards creaked in a warm and welcoming fashion. As I stood beside my friend (a woman I deeply respected and admired) gazing on a large backyard with a glorious maple anchoring a perennial garden in full bloom bookended by two exceptionally large yews I could see it. I could see a puppy frolicking in the grass, small children running through a sprinkler, backyard BBQ’s, family dinners, cozy nights; my dreams were unfolding before my eyes. My dear friend had opened my eyes to the endless possibilities this quaint, outdated home offered just like she had opened my eyes to see the unique potential in every child, every person.
Just like the children she nurtured towards their full potential, my incredible friend could see past the superficial presentation of orange shag carpet and heavy curtains. She saw what was unique and special in every situation and every person. The house with potential was purchased and provided eight years of joy, shelter, and comfort for three of four children, two dogs, and two cats. It provided incredible neighbours, friends, and a community that was beyond anything I could have ever hoped for or imagined. My friend's ability to discover, expose and polish the potential of every situation was a character trait that made her wonderfully unique. It was a trait that all who knew her loved dearly.
After many years of working together, a mutual colleague and friend suffered a massive heart attack. There was an urgent need to fill his position and Mary Lou stepped up to the plate. In typical fashion, she dove into the role with an unparalleled passion. It was ”temporary” so Mary Lou didn’t mind the long hours and late nights it took to sustain her Kindersport program and fulfill our colleague's full-time duties. She was run ragged with no time for long walks and long conversations. The balance she had so beautifully created was gone. Not long after stepping into this new role, Mary Lou was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She approached her diagnosis with optimism and ensured her commitment to work and dedication to serving others were uninterrupted. Her treatment was aggressive and she rallied. She was incredible. After being cancer-free for a year, the cancer came back with a vengeance. It was a short and courageous fight and she fought it with grace and strength. Her legacy lives on in the lives of hundreds of children who she took the time to gently and tenderly polish. It lives on in the influence she had on her community, the students she mentored and the many staff she trained. It is marked on the hearts of her two beautiful boys and her husband. To this day I have never met anyone with her enthusiasm and ability to see the potential and opportunity in places and people others would disregard.
There are people who walk in and out of your life and then there are those who walk in, take your hand and teach you to dance. Mary Lou Bean was one of those people. At every opportunity, she taught those who were privileged to know her how to dance. The musical memoir of this post was her gift of encouragement to all who knew her. Played at the close of her celebration of life and chosen by her beautiful husband as a testament of what she would say to any who would listen, I am constantly reminded to look past the orange shag carpet and heavy brown curtains.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance Dance I hope you dance.