Mary Ellen Nelligar Petti, my wife and friend of 17 years and mother of my two boys, passed away on January 8th. Below is (close to) the eulogy delivered at her wake on January 13th. I’m posting it here for any of her family or friends who could not be with us that night:
What in God’s name are we doing here? More to the point with many of us, what are we doing here without a script and a score and some choreography.
We are in an unreal situation, trying to say something authentic.
I’m supposed to be some kind of a writer, but this isn’t going to be well-written. Mary El can’t be contained by a narrative. I was reading a short story collection and they had these blurbs about the authors before each story and one author said of his work, “All I trust is fragments.”
So that’s all I have. Fragments.
Mary El was dyslexic and she was self conscious about her spelling, so she’d just yell out random words from the other room like “kumquat!” or “Armageddon!” I had to realize it wasn’t really an impending Armageddon and spell the word for her. I was her spell check before there was such a thing.
She read voraciously, but she gravitated toward similar types of books. We’d joke that she needed to find a Tudor history about a poor, young Southern girl who time traveled to Nazi Germany. The only people sadder than us right now are the folks at Amazon Kindle, because they are going to lose a lot of business.
Mary El has an alternate personality named Fifi Larue. Believe it or don’t.
She adored Facebook–she called it the party she attended in her pajamas. Her last post asked her friends to list three people they thought were particularly attractive. I answered, because of course my participation was mandatory. I said Donna Reed, Emma Thompson, and Mary Ellen Nelligar Petti. A friend of ours posted, “Suck up!” and I replied, “Absolutely!”
Her references were about 100 years out of date. She’d mention ice trucks, or soda shops, or horse-drawn carriages. She’d say of some actress, “Who does she think she is, Myrna Loy?” And I’d say, no, nobody thinks they’re Myrna Loy, they haven’t thought that in at least 100 years.
A friend of ours called Mary Ellen a “wanna-be Jew.” She was obsessed with the culture and with Yiddish words. One of the happiest days of her life was when her son James married a Jewish girl. Her and her friend Sharon danced and sang Hava Nagila at the wedding. She was so obsessed with Holocaust documentaries that I used to say she couldn’t get to sleep without hearing the gentle strains of a speech by Adolf Hitler.
She had an idea for a book where Rasputin was a vampire, which is why he couldn’t be killed and also why he could help the czar’s kid with hemophilia. I thought that was brilliant. If anyone steals it I’ll sue.
This past Christmas Mary El found a site where you could adopt a family who was having financial trouble. Now, we have been that family. And even though we are only slightly better off that we were then, she adopted two families and got her sister to adopt a third. Even though she was sick, the week before Christmas was spent meeting people in CVS parking lots with bags of toys. I thought that was so Mary Ellen.
There’s 15 years between Mary El and her big sister Gin, so Gin was already working when Mary El was small. She would get up in the morning to watch her big sister put on her makeup in the bathroom mirror. But being a little girl, she was a nudge–she put her fingers in the makeup and generally was a pain. So Gin used to get up quietly to sneak out of the house before Mary El woke up. When she woke up she would run to the window and cry that she didn’t get to say goodbye to “My Ginna.” Because Mary El adored her so.
Mary El got cast in Grey Garden and they couldn’t find anyone anyone to play opposite her, so she begged her friend Jimmy to do the role. Jimmy didn’t wanna. At that point they had been friends for 24 years, so in exchange for doing the role she promised him another 24 years. So whenever Jimmy would see her afterwards he would say, “You owe me 17 years, five months, three weeks and two days!”
She loved malapropisms and blown lines. She was doing a serious scene where a girl playing her daughter described defending an old man being beaten by a group of Poles during WWII. The line came out something like, “And the Poles hit him with a pole while pole-dancing.” Mary El’s eyes lit up with what can only be described as pure, evil-elf joy. She tried to make eye contact with Rich Aufiero (who was playing the father), to share her joy, and he just said out loud, onstage, “Don’t even look at me.”
Her cousin Cliff grew up with Mary El and he has a very stoic personality. When they would see each other as adults at family functions, Mary El would grab him from behind and start singing, “Feelings! Whoa, whoa, whoa, feelings! ” She had no walls, not even a brick. She laughed in the face of other people’s walls and reduced them to rubble.
There was a two week period when I was in the hospital at Mt. Sinai in NYC and Conor was in the hospital in Goshen. For two weeks, she would spend one day with me and one day with him. When she needed to be she was strong as an oak.
She called herself an “Irish loser,” which isn’t just your regular kind of loser. An Irish loser has no self-confidence, but deep down still knows they are as good or better than anybody. We are a complicated bunch, we Irish.
Mary El had nicknames for people: Mickle the Baby Pickle, Con-Man, Vlad the Inhaler, Tovalah, Reppie, Doll Baby, Yimmie, Sistah Woman, Mandingo Warrior, Weekawah Monster, Sadie–but she saved the majority for her son James. During his childhood, he had to answer to Jammers, Jammie Do, Mussolini, Lou, and finally…Lou Gossett Jr. If he heard her say, “Lou Gossett Jr.,” he had to say, “Yes Mom!”
There were so many shows she was brilliant in, too many to list. For the Just Off Broadway folks, I think she’ll always be Rizzo, to the County Players folks Reno Sweeney, to the Pearl River folks Mama Rose (at just 17!), and to the Creative Theater people she was Adelaide. There are two moments in her performing career that stick out because I know how much they meant to her. The first was a straight play called Enchanted April–the ending monologue was her acting at the height of her ability. The other was her Judy cabaret From Oz to Nuremberg. If you were lucky enough to be in the room that night, you know why. She was at ease, confident, healthy, and incandescent. It gave you a glimpse at what she could have done if she had been healthier more often.
When something like this happens, there are roles that you are expected to follow. I choose not to be a griever. I choose to be a celebrant.
After we had our boys, Mary El was showing me a dress that I was pretending to care about and I mentioned casually, “Well, you love your floral prints.” She said no I don’t. So I said that’s all you wore while you were pregnant. So she went and looked at the pictures and there she was in her floral maternity clothes. Her exact quote to me was, “How could you let me leave the house like that! I looked like a sofa!”
There are a million others. She wrote a poem for her mom called “My Mother’s Hands.” We lost these certain cardboard Christmas decorations in one of our 14 floods and I finally, finally tracked them down this year so we could have them on the tree. She had members of her “tribe”–her grandfather, her cousin Chris, our son Conor, our niece Kiera–who all had that crazy twinkle in their eye. She left used tissues everywhere. We visited our doctor so often we referred to him as “Uncle Ernie.” When our friend Jimmy lived with us he worked odd hours and would cook on the George Foreman grill in the middle of the night, which Mary El referred to as “Jimmy’s 2AM Cooking Show.” We had a party over the summer with some folks I had done a show with who had never met Mary El, and long after I went to sleep they stayed out in the backyard talking until 4 in the morning. She did a search for the name “Nelligar” on Facebook and ended up great long-distance friends with some distant relation out in Seattle. A childhood friend, without her knowing, wrote a children’s book based on her called “The Adventures of Hairymelon” about a spunky 11-year-old.
Mychal, you have your mother’s touch. Conor, you have the same empathy. James, you will always be her baby.
I will remember endless cups of coffee she gave me without asking, shared TV shows and movies, taking an 8 hour car ride and never having a lull in the conversation, how making her laugh–really milk out your nose laugh–was like winning the lottery.
The final word needs to go to Mary El. As anyone who has ever shared a stage with her knows, nobody follows Mary Ellen…
(click on photo to link to video)