The Home Team / Admiring Maura Marden
When my youngest son Robby was four years old, I signed him up for swimming lessons at the Y, just as I did for his two older brothers before him. And I expected he'd give me a hard time every week, same as they did: We are, after all, predominantly a family of land athletes. Swimming has never generated a lot of excitement around our house.
Earlier this week I asked Robby what he recalled about those early swimming lessons. He said he remembered taking them with Wes, his first friend. And that they used to play a game called Humpty Dumpty which, as he tells it, involved falling from the edge into the pool and splashing a lot. And that it was fun.
Yes, that it was fun. Now who do you think was behind all that?
Robby's swimming instructor was a woman named Maura Marden -- and you didn't have to hang around the pool very long to see that Maura loved teaching kids to swim. It was hard not to get excited about what she was excited about. It was hard not to want to please her. And it was hard not to share her enthusiasm.
A lot of you probably remember that in those beginner lessons (Pollywog, Guppy, Minnow), the parents are right there in the pool with their kids. So I got to know Maura pretty well. I had three boys. She had three boys. We hit it off right away, and a bond was formed. She got a big kick out of Robby, and the feeling was clearly mutual.
True to family form, after those first few years of the Humpty Dumpty splash-a-thons and the free-style races where not even a single swimmer kept to his lane, Robby cast his lot with land sports -- and so our "official" connection with Maura was over. But we kept up. I'd see her at a Rec basketball game here, a high school football game there. Amazingly, she always seemed aware of what sport Robby was into, and how he was doing. From time to time I'd get a piece of fan mail from her, complimenting me on one of my columns. And every year we exchanged holiday cards -- so I always knew what David-Danny-Bart looked like, and she stayed up-to-date with Matt-Greg-Robby the same way.
Her house was less than a half mile from ours, so occasionally I'd see her husband Bill commuting home from the Greens Farms train station -- on his bike, of course. And even more often I'd spot Maura running. Turkey Hill, Hillandale, Morningside -- you name it, she was out there. My wife often says that if a person runs a lot, I'll like them -- no questions asked. And she happens to be right -- I do have respect and admiration for people who are into exercise and the great outdoors. Maura could have been the poster girl.
To use a current piece of ESPN jargon, Maura had an amazing "motor." Unfortunately, the motor started to slow down four years ago, when she developed cancer. No surprise to anyone, she fought back with the same trademark determination she showed everywhere, from town swimming causes to local politics. This past August, despite being weakened by complications from her stem cell transplant, she competed -- along with her three sons -- in the St. Vincent's Hospital SWIM Across the Sound. Her group, Team Pride II, was the leading cancer fundraiser. The grit it took to do that was pure Maura.
Maura died on Sept. 27. At the wake, I saw -- not unexpectedly -- tons of people I recognized from our town's athletic community. The wake happened to be on the afternoon of a big Friday night Staples football game at Ridgefield, and a lot of Maura's friends said to me, in quiet tones, almost guiltily, "I'll see you at the game tonight." No need for guilt, though. If Maura could have, I'm sure she would have been going, too.
There's one more connection my family shares with hers. During the summers that my oldest son Matt worked as a counselor at beach camp, he had Maura's three sons in his groups. They got along great. Maura was such a fan of the job Matt did with the boys that when the time came to get a personal reference letter for Matt's college application, we asked her if she wouldn't mind. She wrote in glowing terms about the special way he had with younger kids, his enthusiasm, his dedication.
I never had the opportunity to return the favor, but I'm going to do it now. Maura's gung-ho approach to life would put the Energizer Bunny to shame. Her inner strength was a thing to behold. Her joie de vivre could power a town. Big-time words -- but for Maura, a perfect fit.
Westporter Hank Herman shares his Home Team column every other Friday in the Westport News.