Mary Lee

A tribute to my late wife, Mary Lee—a person who made everything she touched better.

Published in the Fall 2003 issue of V-Boost (a motorcycle magazine).

Tribute to Mary Lee Burnham,  September 2nd 1940 – June 24th 2003

             Most of you didn’t get the opportunity to meet my marvelous wife.  I hope that the following will help, in some small measure, to aquaint you with her. 

            In a very real sense, motorcycling was Mary Lee’s final gift to me.  Sadly, the importance of that would be lost on most people.  I’m glad I can share it with you because it is so illustrative of her nature.

When I began dating Mary Lee, I considered myself to be between motorcycles.  It wasn’t a question of whether or not I’d replace the Airel I’d recently sold, it was a given that I’d have another.  Our dating raised a few eyebrows.  At the time, many people—including my dad—wondered what a class act like her was doing with someone like me.  Without going into any details, I’d have to confess that, at that time, I didn’t look like very good husband material.  As our relationship progressed and I began to realize what a really, really good thing I had going, I also became aware that I didn’t want her to become part of my world—I wanted to become part of hers.  It was quite an awakening to find myself interested in regular employment and the rest of the responsibility schtick.  The between motorcycles period became a thirty-five year hiatus.

I didn’t lose my love for motorcycles as I became a ctitizen and Mary Lee and I often talked about getting his ‘n her bikes.  Unfortunately, this talk didn’t materialize before she was diagnosed with cancer.  That caused both of us to come to attention and recognize that we’d best start smelling the roses while we still had time.  Shortly after her first round with chemotherapy (which appeared to have been successful), she asked me “Why don’t you get a motorcycle?”  Having no good reply, I—like the dutiful husband—said “Yes Dear” and purchased a new Honda 750 spirit with the idea in mind that it would be suitable mount for both of us to learn and obtain our licenses on.

Mary Lee didn’t join me as I prusued my training and licensing through that summer because the strength had not returned to her right arm.  By the time the riding season returned the next year, she opined that it was possible that she was going to have to ride as a passenger for awhile.  So, I went out and obtained a Gold Wing from the local dealer for a weekend trial.  She loved riding on it although I felt that it was way too dignified for me.  Alas, the decision regarding whether or not to buy it was taken out of my hands.  While I was agonizing, we got word that the cancer was back with a vengence.

Chemotherapy is mean at best but we found the “second line” chemo that she now required to be simply brutal.  In the midst of the battle, she asked me “Why don’t you trade the Spirit for the bike you really want?”  I got pretty blubbery at that point because we both knew that the bike I really wanted wasn’t suitable for either her to learn on or to carry a passenger. The Spirit got traded for a Yamaha FZ1.

During the next eighteen months, she encouraged me to ride whenever she felt good enough to be left alone for awhile.  I got in some trips to the twisties of BC and a few track days.  It was kind of strange because it was the first activity in 36 years that I did without her.  But, it was apparent to both of us that these “time outs” both refreshed and enabled me to do a better job of looking after her.

Had she gotten well enough to enjoy riding—even for a short while—there’d been a wing in the stable but the fizzer stands alone because she died on June 24th.

Goodbye Mary Lee.  Thanks for 37 wonderful years.  Your making certain that I was back on a bike before you left was, simply, over the top.

Tribute by our daughter, Lu Anne:

I’d like to tell you about my mum. She loved red. And orange. She painted the house doors orange when and when not the whole darn house was orange. I don’t like red. It scares me. I like black. Black is safe. My mum wasn’t safe. The lady has a radical masectomy and processed through psychological reality of having a part of her femininity stolen and disfigured by a dragon that she stood over with a Pulemyot Maxima. That was my mum. Five foot nothing and full of conviction and determination. Cute to watch and humbling to internalize. Makes me realize how far I have to go in this character building journey we call life. Thank you mom.

 I do strange things. One of which is to run a bit. On two legs, my mum has never moved at a faster pace than 11 minute miles. However, she relayed numerous times how she loved to watch me run down the hill in an orange (yes, orange… she also sewed clothes for us) gingham pleated skirt. She said I looked so graceful, even at 4 years old. I have always felt ugly and like I took up way too much space. Yet every time I heard this story, after groaning audibly, I felt elegant and light. An invaluable gift to the bruised self-perception of an adolescent… from which I have never really matured. I still treasure this gift and do feel most graceful when I am on a road bike or running. Thank you mom.

 I could continue with little bits of treasure that form the mosaic art of this lady. But she also touched you similarly. I know. One last thing, she always said life wasn’t fair. I hated hearing that. Justice and predictability is safe and I am safe. But she is right. Earth doesn’t deserve to have experienced Mary Lee for the 63 years it did. But was blessed. I am grateful to have been given life by this woman and have my world molded and nurtured by her.

 Thank you mom and I love you with everything I am. You know that now.

Tribute by Debbie Maddigan:


 There are few people in one’s lifetime that hold very special and meaningful places in our hearts but for me Mary-Lee was one of those special ones.  For many years we would have breakfast together on Thursday mornings and we would discuss just about anything under the sun.  I always valued her wisdom and insight and I also admired the way she stood by John.  I don’t think I ever heard her say one bad thing about him or their marriage.  She always felt so very blessed to think that God would have blessed her with such a wonderful man. Her girls also were discussed. Sometimes with laughter and sometimes with tears.  It just depended on what was going on.  I’ll never forget the first time she got the news that she had cancer.  John was away and so she came after her appointment.  She was numb and as usual I really didn’t know what to do so we just prayed and asked God to give her back her health and to keep her strong. I always felt like when Mary Lee spoke of God, he was very close to her.  AT times when she would doubt somewhere there was always the faith of a mustard seed because she belonged to Jesus and somewhere deep inside she knew that. 

She was a kind and loving woman who always thought of others before herself. She loved to quilt and taught me the wonderful art which was quite a feat since I am more of a framer than a finishing carpenter if you get my meaning.  SHe made sure all my points were straight and lined up and that all the seams were straight. I was thrilled with the final product but I told her that maybe that would have to be an original.  She laughed and said maybe I was right.

Over the past few years we have kept in contact over the phone and I so wished that I could have had one more visit with my special friend. Even tho’ I will not see here again here on earth I look forward to our visits inside the gates of Heaven.  I loved her and she made a great difference to my life and to others. Thank you Mary Lee for taking the time to be my friend.

All my love,  Debbie Maddigan


2 Responses

  1. I remember going to Uncle John’s and Aunt Mary Lee’s as a little girl. I remember so well going to Colorado Springs and being a little bit in awe of this woman who clearly loved her children and husband. One time we were there and one of the girls would not eat her soup (I won’t name names to protect the innocent!) and was very adamant about letting it be know she HATED soup. Mary Lee got up, got the wooden spoon and took her by the hand and left the room. When they came back, the little one sat down and ate her soup. Mary Lee then gave her a hug and all was well. When I had children of my own, I got a wooden spoon!! LOL

    I didn’t get to see Mary Lee and John and the girls but infrequently over the years as they moved to Canada when I was fairly young. They came and visited several times after I got to be an adult and Mary Lee and I hit it off very well. The last time they came to Colorado, it was at Christmas time. During the day when my mom had to work, Mary Lee and I went shopping, did some quilting, did some baking, made Christmas tree ornaments with my kids, but most importantly talked and talked. She told me about her mom and dad (some stories I had heard from my mom and some were new), talked about her faith, told me stories about her and John, and shared stories about the girls. She was so very proud of Janelle and her writing and spoke often about what a great team she and her husband made. She told me that Luann was such a pretty runner, even from a young age, that she is beautiful both inside and out and how her husband was a great man. she spoke of Heather’s quirky sense of humor that seemed to be very much like my own daughters and how much laughter Heather brought to their family. I was able to get to know the girls a little bit through their Mama’s eyes even though I haven’t spoken to them in years. Mary Lee was so very proud of each you and all of your accomplishments and loved you all so very much!! I loved that she wanted me to know her family.

    I am so thankful that I got to spend that time with her, getting to know her. She was truly a remarkable woman! Though I won’t see her here again, I am so thankful for our shared faith and the assurance that one day I will once again see this woman that I loved so very much! Until then Aunt Mary Lee!

  2. Mary Lee is my sister. I say is because she has never left my heart nor my memories. In a recent visit with our brother we shared stories and times that we had with her. Lots of laughter and of course some sadness that for now we cannot be with her.
    Mary Lee and I shared a love of books, though I suspect she preferred a more sedate suspense or mystery while I love action, action, action. While we shared many likes and dislikes we did not spend as much time together as we should. But whenever the time came we always felt that we were taking up the conversation without a flaw. I miss her dearly. Thanks Sis, and thanks for the wonderful brother-in-law.
    all my love, Peggy

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