NEWBERG, Ore. — Handcrafted birdhouses line the gravel driveway leading to a farm just outside Newberg. Each birdhouse is occupied. Swallows and sparrows have returned to a favorite nesting spot.
On a recent spring day, Mary Mayor stood outside a nearby barn watching and called out to them with chirping sounds.
“Here kiddies, kiddies, kiddies, come on kids,” she said.
Swallows swooped in as Mary reached out to hand them feathers for nesting material for their birdhouses. Like Mary, they’ve found a safe place to call home. And to Mary, the birds are like family.
“I’ve always admired the birds. What a gift to be able to fly,” she said.
Mary said she was bullied as a child because of eczema that left scabs on her arms. One day she spotted a robin that landed on a branch across the street. She wished she could be just like the robin and fly away.
“She ruffled her feathers. It was like eye contact, one-on-one. I didn’t feel alone. I had someone looking at me and not running away from me. She was going to take off and I was like, ‘no, don’t go. I want to go with you,’” Mary said.
In the fourth grade, Mary even tried to glue turkey feathers together to make wings. She dreamed of flying.
“I wish I would have been a pilot. But I had a discouraging father who told me I couldn’t do anything and I’d add up to nothing and I believed him,” she said.
Verbally abused by her father and later physically abused by a husband, instead of taking flight, Mary’s life became rooted in drugs, alcohol and homelessness. She spent seven years homeless, living in a tent in a park in the Dundee area, sometimes in the woods on the coast.
“I always worried about the storms in a wooded area. The trees would bend and crack,” she said.
She survived on crawfish she caught in a creek and on the goodwill of strangers. Mary said she was the first homeless person in Newberg to hold up a sign in the Safeway parking lot asking for help.
“It said ‘Homeless, need gas, will work,’” Mary explained. “I was desperate. Bless people’s hearts who helped me out,” she said.
Mary would end up hospitalized eight times for pancreatitis from drinking. She thought about taking her own life.
“I know what hopeless, useless feels like. It’s horrible, lonely, dark,” she said.
It wasn’t the life she imagined when she and her classmates attended Yamhill-Carlton High school in the mid 1970s. One of her classmates, Nicholas Kristof, went on to become a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist. Kristof called Mary his “7th grade crush.”
Mary Mayor and Kristof recently met outside the school and chatted about old times.
“This brings back a lot of memories. This was a wonderful school. The teachers were awesome,” Mary said.
“This is where we grew up. It was a very nurturing community,” Kristof added.
Four decades after they graduated, with Mary’s permission, Kristof wrote about her in the book “Tightrope,” which he co-wrote with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. It tells the personal story of how many of Kristof’s classmates stumbled and fell through the cracks of a frayed social safety net and died from drugs, alcohol abuse and suicide. Mary almost became one of them.
“What I love about your story, Mary, is it’s so uplifting. There is so much that’s depressing and your story is completely uplifting,” Kristof said.
Uplifting because despite the adversity she faced, Mary lifted herself up out of homelessness. She hit bottom after being hospitalized an eighth time.
“Just one thing after another, I had multiple health issues, something snapped in me. My health was number one,” she said.
Community members invited her to church, she got clean and sober, and other friends offered her a place to stay at their farm.
“I have met so many people being homeless. And I am so grateful and I let them know,” she said. “It may not be in the little corner where you are living, but there is help out there and you’re worth it. Believe in yourself.”
Mary is rebuilding her life by building birdhouses for the creatures she loves, the birds.
“Now, I have a shelter over my head and I’m building homes for my feathered friends,” Mayor said.
She handcrafts each birdhouse in a shed on the farm. Carefully sawing and nailing each piece of wood and attaching pine cones, nut shells, sea shells and other natural items she collects.
She has 12 themed houses, including Beachfront Property, Wine Country, The Logger, The Knotty Box, The Gardener, The Cottage and Gone Fishing. They’re all part of her collection called “Cheep Rent.”
“They’re strong and sturdy. I finally feel like that for the first time in my life. It feels good,” she said.
Mary sells her birdhouses by word of mouth and at festivals and fairs. After Kristof’s book “Tightrope” was published with a photo of Mary and one of her birdhouses, she received orders from across the country.
Kristof recently visited Mary on the farm to see her birdhouse production first hand. He held up the birdhouse dubbed “Beachfront Property.”
“I just think these are gorgeous,” he said. “Any bird would be lucky to call this place home.”
He encouraged Mary to raise the price she charges for the birdhouses.
“Don’t think of them as birdhouses. Think of them as works of art,” he said.
Kristof said Mary was initially reluctant to be included in his book. She was embarrassed and ashamed of being homeless — it was a period of her life she wanted to leave behind. But she agreed because she wanted people to know those without homes are people, too, and deserve respect.
“That was such a brave thing to do. I admire that,” Kristof said.
“I like where I landed with a positive attitude. I like making people smile,” Mary said.
Kristof said it’s important for people to hear Mary’s story.
“Right now in Oregon everybody feels despairing about the homeless problem. We’ve tried so many things. A lot of people have given up. Mary’s a reminder it’s not hopeless. She is an inspiration to me,” Kristof said.
Outside the barn, Mary puts her hand out to offer more feathers to the swallows. She and the birds are indeed birds of a feather.
“I love this,” she said with a big smile.
Mary Mayor has done something extraordinary in life. While she still doesn’t have wings, she has learned to fly.