Mary McCallum


Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.

McCallum: Fireflies

Jul 10, 2014

One recent warm night, as I sat on my back porch listening to the final evening song of the hermit thrush, I was delighted to see the woods twinkling with lightning bugs.

Also called fireflies and glow worms, these light emitting insects carry the scientific name of Lampyridae, which I cannot help but notice has the word lamp in it. But while there are about 2,000 species throughout Asia and the Americas, these small blinky beetles immortalized in poem and song are becoming less plentiful.

Mary McCallum / VPR

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Miss Rumphius, a well loved picture book for kids published more than thirty years ago. Its fictional heroine, Miss Alice Rumphius, found a way to make the world a more beautiful place by scattering five bushels of flower seeds around the roadsides, fields and lanes of her New England seaside village at the end of summer.

The symphonic sound of peepers is what I think of first when I get itchy for spring and its rewards for having come through another winter. This year, that poetic notion was temporarily edged out by a most unusual craving to clean.

Not windows, carpets and cobwebby corners. No, this was a piercing desire to pitch possessions, a lifetime of accumulated detritus that I hold affection for but don’t need. Just one unplanned hour spent searching through overstuffed filing cabinets provided enough juice to launch a sifting frenzy that continued for weeks.

McCallum: GMO Law

Apr 23, 2014

First, bright blue and green signs cropped up in neighborhood yards atop winter snowbanks.  I passed them daily without giving them much thought except to register the message:  Label GMOs Now!  Without thinking much beyond the surface, I gave it an internal nod of approval since I generally don’t support genetically engineered foods and I want to know where my food comes from and what’s in it. Then, I visited with a neighbor who owns a small specialty food business and began thinking more about how the GMO labeling law may affect her livelihood.

Eleven neglected animals were seized from a St. Johnsbury property where nineteen others died. Three emaciated horses were discovered in a filthy barn, nearly blind and unable to walk. Two dogs were left to freeze when their owner abandoned them in subzero weather. These are disturbing images with a common theme - animal cruelty in Vermont .

I’ve occasionally had passing fixations for things that amazed my friends because they don’t seem to align with the politically correct, organic food eating, pop culture loathing person they think I am. I’ve had brief but full-blown passing fancies with shooting guns, fast-food fried chicken and Michael Jackson. And now bingo.

On a recent late January afternoon sixty people gathered in a tiny church in my town to listen to stories. The cold winter light was turning dusky, but the church inside was warm and decorated with twinkly white lights. When the straight-backed pews filled up the overhead lights were dimmed and, one by one, eight local folks took the stage to tell a story sprung from their own lives.

One winter afternoon I was shelving books in the library of Vermont’s high security prison with my inmate assistant Frankie, when I realized that I hadn’t seen the copy of War and Peace in weeks. It never moved because no one ever checked it out.

McCallum: Hats

Nov 15, 2013

On a recent stay in Manhattan I shared the elevator with an elderly woman going down for her morning walk. She wore an enormous hat decorated with flowers and filmy chiffon that matched her suit, and brought into the elevator a whiff of the nineteen-fifties that stirred childhood memories of Sundays past. When the doors opened she trotted off in her remarkable hat to meet the new day.

It’s my habit when walking the dog to look down more than up. That’s because there are sometimes interesting critters on the road making a kind of pilgrimage to the other side. The dog finds the flattened remains of those who didn’t quite get there and tries to roll on their desiccated corpses, while I often help a red eft newt or toad on its way.

My town of Cavendish was hit pretty hard by the fury of Tropical Storm Irene. Wind and rain roared through this small town on the Black River and turned its main artery, Route 131, into a crater the size of a football field, earning it the name Cavendish Canyon.

This month I’ve become obsessed with tap dancing - not doing it myself - yet - but watching online videos and searching for adult tap classes in Vermont that I might take with a friend who’s also obsessed with it.

It’s summer. The sultry season when passing through a sizzling asphalt parking lot makes dog lovers automatically scan rows of cars for signs of a pooch baking inside one. I wish I could report that I rarely see a pet locked in with the windows cracked, virtually trapped until its owner returns from an errand, but it happens with disturbing regularity.

My mother is always packing. But at 96 and with advancing dementia, she isn’t going anywhere. In her small room in a nursing home, she lives in a perpetual state of confusion.

It’s not unusual for me to walk in and find her in a mental tizzy with her bureau drawers emptied onto the bed and piles of possessions strewn on the floor.

“Mom,” I say. “Are you packing?” She looks at me as if I should know that of course she’s packing and why do I waste my breath asking.

McCallum: Last Words

Apr 26, 2013

I have a secret addiction that I share with a friend. We snip and save fascinating obituaries from our newspapers. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a thick folder of them that range from short and plain to stories rich in detail.

Each one speaks in some way to what I call a life well lived.

This spring, Caroline Kennedy's new book called Poems to Learn by Heart was published. A segment on the evening news showed her standing among excited middle school students who were being interviewed about Kennedy's volunteer work with them in appreciating and memorizing poetry. One declared that it had changed her life. Her enthusiasm brought me back to the year I ran a poetry class in Vermont's high security prison, which culminated with a reading in the facility's visiting room for inmates, special guests and the press.

McCallum: Steeples

Feb 5, 2013

(Host) In winter, Vermonters can see further across the stark landscape,noticing things that are less visible with foliage on the trees. Educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum says it offers a better view of an architectural detail that serves as a beacon to travelers and churchgoers alike. Brunch Sampler_122612_Mary McCallum_(laughter, applause).mp3