05/30/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2014

Losing an Incidental Friend

I lost a friend on Memorial Day. Driving home alone, she pulled her car over to the side of the road and died of a heart attack. Mary McBride, a history teacher and high school administrator, was what that bard of friendship, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would have called an incidental friend. If you're lucky enough to live in the same community for a while, you know what I'm talking about.

An incidental friend might be a neighbor down the street whom you don't know well but chat with every day on your morning walk; a hairdresser you've had for years who regales you with stories about her teenage daughter; the mechanic who entertains you with fishing stories as he checks over your car for the umpteenth time.

In an increasingly fast and fragmented world, our incidental friends ground us. The metaphor of a tent comes to mind: If our immediate family and close friends provide the framework and the canvas, incidental friends like Mary are the stakes making sure the canvas doesn't blow away. Until those incidental friends depart.

I met Mary almost 30 years ago in the locker room of a high school swimming pool in Arlington. She and I -- and a dozen or so other women foolhardy enough to get up at the crack of dawn to swim -- bonded, probably because we were foolhardy enough to rise at the crack of dawn to swim.
At some point, someone dubbed us the Splash Girls. Some of us would arrive and sit at the shallow end, testing the temperature of the water with our feet. Others would start by making graceful forward dives into the pool's deep end.

Mary's entrance was unique. She would stand at the very edge of the deep end, slowly lean over with her arms outstretched above her head and sort of fall into the water.

Almost all of my conversations with Mary took place when we were naked in the shower. The shower was a three-walled affair with five or six shower heads; private, individual showers weren't available until years later when a new pool replaced the old one. Mary would regale me, and others who were sudsing down, with funny, endearing stories about her students (whose names we never knew, of course). She would ask me about my son's progress in school and how his baseball pitching was going.

One morning, she announced that she was the proud owner of a black cat whom she had named Othello. Othello's antics provided such good story material in that shower room that for a while we talked of, and laughed about, little else. Mary's laugh could always be heard above the others -- a kind of guttural "Huh, huh."

She started teaching social studies in 1972 at a public alternative high school in Arlington which quickly incorporated a middle school into its campus. County school board members called it the H.B. Woodlawn Secondary Program. Certain other county residents dubbed it "Hippie High." Hippie it may have been; school photos of Mary in a granny dress, high-waisted plaid pants or turtleneck and bleached jeans suggest that. Students were offered a wide range of courses and, for a while, could limit their work to one subject. But H.B. Woodlawn also built a reputation for being one of the top academic middle/high schools in the country, based on countywide tests and college acceptances. That was, staff members agree, in no small part because of Mary.

Mary became head teacher, then assistant principal. It was the only school at which she taught -- for 40 years. She never stopped teaching social studies and history, even as an administrator. She never married. And she never lacked for friends and respect among the faculty and students. A memorial ceremony for her at the school on May 29, which packed the auditorium, made me wish I had known her better.

"Getting into trouble wasn't all that bad because it gave us time to be together," one student wrote about Mary on one of several tables set up for individual recollections. A teacher wrote, "Mary could turn a teacher-staff meeting into a comedy routine." Mary also apparently was determined that her students could learn even if they thought themselves failures. Second chances mattered. Assignments could be done, redone and done yet again. "Grades can change," she'd tell principal Frank Haltiwanger.

One morning after a swim, while Mary and I were getting dressed, she mentioned that she was teaching a unit on the civil rights movement. I told her that my father, a Southern preacher active in the movement, had written an article in the 1950s for The Saturday Evening Post, gently chastising his fellow clergy for not doing more to support school integration. She asked for a copy of the article, which I provided, and for years afterward she would inquire regularly about my father's welfare. History to Mary was about people we care about, and she used every means to encourage her students to feel the same way.

Mary and I traveled in different circles. She never met my father or any other relatives. I never met any of hers. She was never in my home, nor was I in hers. We never went out to eat together. The only time I remember seeing her anywhere other than the pool was at a luncheon given a couple of years ago by another swimmer. I deeply regret not getting to know her better.

When I returned home from swimming after hearing of Mary's death, my eyes for some reason fell on a crocheted spread that lies at the foot of my bed. The cover, handmade by my husband's grandmother, is composed of squares of ivory yarn, bound together by quarter-inch pieces of thinner ivory thread.

The Marys of this world, like those tiny threads, are what keep the larger parts of our lives connected.