The Magic of My Sister Mary

This is my sister Mary.

Mary loves smiling, bowling and is generally unbeatable at Yahtzee.    

She knows the words to every Shania Twain song and undisputedly gives the world’s warmest hugs.

Her favorite color is pink…as evidenced by her bedroom where it looks like a case of Pepto Bismol has exploded.

More than anything in this world, she loves babies.

In family circles, she’s known as the “Baby Whisperer,” as no crying baby has ever outlasted my sister’s patience or calming embrace.

She calls me Domino, a nickname she finds still finds hilarious, even after 40 years. 

Mary is what you would call “special needs.”

What her learning disability is, precisely, has always been difficult to say. She has higher functioning capabilities than those with autism or Down Syndrome, but there’s never been a convenient “classification” for her special brand of needs.

From an early age, medical professionals and special needs experts started bracing my parents for the reality that Mary would always require a lifetime of extra care.

She would never be able to live on her own, hold a regular job or be fully independent.

Raising a child is difficult. 

Raising a child with special needs can require a superhuman commitment.


Mary’s Early Life, Through My Eyes

Growing up, I witnessed how hard Mary’s differences were on her. 

Mary was a grade above me. From Kindergarten to 6th grade, we went to different schools. She went to Smith (public) while I went to St. Paul’s (Catholic), so I didn’t witness her hardships firsthand. Instead, I’d see her when she came home.

Kids can be tough. More than a few times, Mary would come home despondent. Sometimes in tears. She’d be teased for talking to herself in the hallways, looking disheveled or eating alone.

Teachers could be tough too. Mary split her time between mainstream and special education classes. During parent-teacher conferences, mainstream teachers were quick to point Mary’s limitations and low-future ceilings.

As she approached 8th grade, she faced down the barrel of a whole new set of problems:

Mrs. Unrath.

The Teacher Everyone Feared


Mrs. Unrath’s reputation preceded her. She was notoriously the hardest-assed most unforgiving teacher in Smith School.

Students feared her disciplinary wrath (see what I did there?).

Parents feared her because they couldn’t negotiate their kids’ grades with her.

Mrs. Unrath was an institution – she didn’t bend to you, you bent to her.

Of course, she happened to teach Algebra, the most notoriously unforgiving subject.

She was legendary for pop quizzes, chewing out students who didn’t come prepared and…worst of all…calling on you spontaneously in class. Daydreamers be dammed.

This worried my mother. Mary had never thrived when put on the spot, and my mother forecasted a long year of torment for my sister.

So my mother reached out to Mrs. Unrath shortly before the school year began and explained Mary’s situation. 

“Give me a week with your daughter in class,” Mrs. Unrath said. “And I’ll be back in touch.”

The following week, my mother’s phone rang.

“Your daughter has a processing delay,” Mrs. Unrath said.

That’s strange, my mother thought. After years of having Mary tested by medical professionals, no one had ever suggested “processing delay” with her learning challenges.

“With a few adjustments, I believe Mary can function at a high level in this classroom. Mary shows solid comprehension on the work that’s in front of her. It just takes her longer to complete.

She needs time to process information. So instead of putting her on the spot in class, I’ve coordinated a signal with Mary to let her know a question is coming her way. When I put my hand on her desk, she knows that the next question is for her. And I will give her extra time before calling on her for the answer.

I also tutor four nights a week. If you make sure Mary is here for two of those nights, I guarantee she will be mainstream math come high school.” 

My mother was flooded with emotions, including both excitement and fear. No teacher had ever believed in Mary like this before. Especially not after one week. Especially not the hardest-assed most unforgiving teacher in the school.

 So, with trepidation, my mother agreed to Mrs. Unrath’s plan.  

And at the end of the final semester, Mary finished the year with a B average. 

She was mainstreamed for high school math.

Just like Mrs. Unrath guaranteed. 


The Magic of Mary


The experts said Mary would never be able to live on her own or hold a regular job.

Today, 27 years after Mrs Unrath came into our lives, Mary is 41 years old…

…she’s living on her own, and has held a steady job for nearly 2 decades.

Being mainstreamed in her high school education meant she could graduate and enroll in a community college where she studied early childhood development.  

Her college degree enabled her to land a job, a steady paycheck, and eventually, her own apartment. 

Over a decade ago, Mary took up residence at The Woodlands…a senior citizen’s home in the town where my family still lives.

10% of the subsidized units are available for non-senior citizens who are classified with “disabilities.”

What at first seemed an odd pairing, Mary couldn’t have landed in a better place.

She has finally found a community of people who embrace her. Turns out, Mary’s natural born skills as a (very) patient listener are valuable currency in a place where people have no shortage of stories or time.

She’s a regular at the card-game tables, more than holding her own at old-school games like pochino and canasta.

She’s even turned into the resident technology whiz. Need to set up an Amazon Alexa or FaceTime your grandson? Mary’s your woman. 

Mary is now the longest tenured employee - 18 years on the job - at The Goddard School, a daycare center where she cares for infants 6 weeks to 12 months of age.

Her gentle, loving touch has nurtured hundreds of babies – and reassured nearly twice as many parents – during the most fragile moments of the newborns lives.

Her skills as The Baby Whisperer found a perfect home.

I once asked Mary how many diapers she changes per day.

Conservatively, at least 10, she estimates.

After 18 years on the job, that equates to roughly 32,400 diaper changes, according to my math.

When I tell her this, her eyes light up and as she often does…laughs. 


There was a time when Mary was underestimated by nearly everyone…doctors, experts, even her family.

It took the intervention of one special educator – Mrs. Dorothy Unrath – to step in and see the potential in Mary that everyone overlooked.

She unlocked something magical that was hidden inside of Mary…a budding, beautiful flower of possibility that was so in danger of wilting…if she hadn’t stepped in to nurture it in time.

Succeeding in Mrs. Unrath’s class seemed like a small, albeit significant win at the time…

But what it really represented was a new, upward pointing trajectory for Mary’s life that changed everything.

I love you, Mary.

Amy Merrill