03/25/2015 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Notable 21st Century Living Women: Mary-Lee-by-the-Sea


For a while now I have wanted to capture a portrait of sorts of Mary Lee. In the spirit of Women's History Month, I have decided to dedicate this space and time to her. March is a complicated time as the seasons suggest a potential shift in coming weeks, but it also tends to be a difficult time for me because March is the month my mom died 31 years ago, March 15, 1984 when she was merely 41. At 14 years of age, I thought that was sort of old. But now at 45, I realize how young I was.

In the past few years, I have met a few wonderful older woman spirited and individualistic, independent and beautiful each in their own way. They have been reminders of who my mother may have become or aged so gracefully into. Our chance meetings have been unexpected and interesting stories in themselves. But full attention to that requires another time and setting. For now I will provide enough to capture the scene.

Mary Lee Alvarez lives in Guánica, Puerto Rico. I refer to her in my HP Blog bio as one of my three fairy godmothers who helped me rescue a dog. But due to her stature and magical quality she is the main fairy godmother and I mean that in the best way possible despite the hokey Disney sparkly connotations that come along with it.

I smile as I think of Mary Lee's walker strung with white twinkle Christmas lights -- okay, well maybe that fairy dust does exist in this story in its own funny way.

Mary Lee is in her 90s although her spirit and energy are much younger. I jokingly sometimes say I wish I could download her into my body and "will it" to her to live out another half of her life. Her love, light, and will-to-live burns much stronger than mine at most times despite her body steadily letting her down.

Enough about that. She would not want me to dwell on that, I don't believe. I am just concerned I have not heard from her or her daughter Suzie (who lives in the Midwest) in a while and after a few hospitalizations this winter I fear my fairy godmother might not be able to receive my tribute and thanks to her.

I will do my best based on memory to recall bits and pieces of Mary Lee's story and perhaps the many other lives, she has touched in her near century, can chime in and correct me where I am wrong and fill in the details where there are gaps.

But let me jump right in. Mary Lee came to my rescue long distance almost four years ago. I'd returned from a November vacation in Puerto Rico with a heavy heart because of a near-death dog I met in the dry forest parking lot in Guánica, a remote southwest village 40 minutes past Ponce.

With the unseen assistance from some strong sources at work, by some miracle via Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, Switzerland to Guánica -- I was able to locate two amazing women Dora and Diane who helped me find someone willing to drive their pickup truck out to the end of Road 333, a winding narrow rough journey, to fetch the dying dog.


Jump ahead a week or two and somehow Mary Lee, lover of dogs (mother to Mia, and now Binkie) encountered the ailing dog at their clinic and heard the story of her rescue. She told Dora she wanted to help too and offered me lodging on my trip down to get the dog. Dora provided Mary Lee's contact information and the rest is history. So many details and so little space. Perhaps two essays will need to be written about Mary Lee to fully describe how this daughter of a Michigan dentist settled in Puerto Rico by herself in the early 1960s after living in Cuba during the revolution. Or to share the story of the time she had a sea urchin stuck in her hair from the body fishing she used to do everyday all along the coast for her meals.

Each time I have gone to visit Mary Lee I've collected bits and pieces of her stories and some photos including her amazing sense of style and decor in the sprawling artfully landscaped secret village she has been adding onto for over half a century. Every inch is decorated with hand painted signs, sculptural driftwood, rocks, shells, and coral -- her findings are finely lit and showcased in Caribbean gallery-style in her living room. The sounds of fountains and wind chimes tucked in here and there, inside and outside -- the space is fluid and flows naturally with the environment where there is no real distinction between "outside" and "inside."


This is part of the transformation that begins to work its magic (Mary Lee's Magic, if you will) on any house guest who enters her world by the sea. I do not want to say too much more about the enchantment because selfishly I fear her cloister will lose its intimacy if it is "discovered" by more people. Besides, the themed bungalows named and decorated with their own personal story by Mary Lee, deserve their own space and time.



Mary Lee, a dress and hat maker by trade, has designed and built a beautiful life first in Cuba (with full memories of hanging out with the "Bardos" this is how she referred to the revolutionaries and storming Batista's palace the evening he fled to find her very own labeled handmade dresses and hats from her tiny shop in town in Ms. Batista's bedroom closet!) and now more of permanence in Puerto Rico.


{Mary Lee, front right Cuba, late 1950s}


{Mary Lee, 1950s Cuba}

Today Mary Lee's visions and skills adorn her life and livelihood providing "a special place for special people" as her website warns against those travelers seeking televisions or other canned prepackaged entertainment. Mary Lee Alvarez, notable woman of the 21st century perhaps is best summed up in these two reviews taken from online:

"A fabulous ensemble of unique casas and casitas, created by a U.S. expat who settled in Guánica in the early 1960's, located between the sub-tropical dry forest to the north and the Caribbean Sea."

"This bright cheerful, sprawling guest house has a distinctive bohemian style reflective of it's owner, Mary Lee."

I wish I could bring my mom to Mary Lee's for an extended vacation this month. I suspect they would immediately recognize each other as lifetime friends upon first meeting and we would share more than stories of our textured lives as women.


{Mary Lee, 2014, Puerto Rico}