Time is such a heartless thief

by | Dec 8, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

DUBLIN, IRELAND — I am writing this from a Dublin hotel room. The weather is dark and dreary, thick clouds with a misty rain. It shouldn’t surprise me. Margaret Daly is no longer here to brighten the Irish sky.

I’ve been coming to Ireland to promote my books since the early 2000s. And every trip, no matter when we landed, there was Margaret, waiting at the airport, often wearing a proper raincoat and checking her watch. She was a thin, stick of a woman, not unlike the cigarettes she used to smoke incessantly. Margaret, it was said, could light a cigarette one handed inside her pocket, just to take a few drags between the countless places you are no longer allowed to smoke.

That was typical. She found ways around everything. By job description, Margaret Daly was a “book publicist,” meaning the publisher hired her to help guide authors through interviews and appearances.

In truth, she was much more.

Margaret was your mouthy aunt, your unabashed grandmother, an advocate, a judge and jury, a firebrand, a whirling dervish. She spoke quickly and repeated herself often, especially if you took more than a nanosecond to do what she asked. She walked briskly, a bag of books always over her shoulder, her eyes darting for the opportunity to get them in front of people.

“Do you know who this is?” she would tell a surprised bookseller, pulling me up to the counter of any bookstore we happened to pass. “He’s come all the way from America. The least you could do is put his books in your front window.”

She was so abrupt that someone would quickly race out a stack of books — just as she had commanded — all but whimpering, “Yes, m’aam. Please don’t hurt me, m’aam.”

Margaret believed in the books that she pushed. She believed in the publisher she worked for. But mostly, she believed in writers.

She believed in me.

One final drag

Over the years, I collected morsels of Margaret’s background. I learned she’d been in the business from a young age, that she worked for Poolbeg publishers and Little Brown publishers and finally the Hachette Book Group, that she never married and had no children, that she perpetually carried that bag of books because, as she often said, “You never know who you’ll run into who can spread the word.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone spreading the word more intensely than Margaret did. She would chase a reporter to interview an author, then wait impatiently until the reporter showed up, sit within earshot to make sure nothing was left out, then pepper the reporter with questions when it was over: “When will this come out? Will you get it good placement? Will there be a nice photo?”

Once we went to a radio station for a one-hour interview program. I was to be the first guest, and a group of folks promoting Christmas toys was to follow. On the way into the studio, Margaret gave me topics to bring up with the host, saying, “He loves to talk about those things.”

It worked too well. The host kept me on for nearly 50 minutes of the hour. When I emerged, you could see the anger in the eyes of the waiting group. But Margaret, always on a mission, said to them as they passed, “Say, while you’re in there, why don’t you mention Mitch’s book? It’s a better gift than a toy.”

I buried my face and snuck out.

That was Margaret Daly. She believed in you and she made no apologies. She came from a time when publicists could truly help a book be discovered. This was long before Amazon and targeted Facebook ads. A slower time. A face-to-face time. Margaret never forgot your face. And you never forgot hers.

When she announced her retirement a few years back, the entire Irish publishing world was heartbroken. Even the bookstore owners she used to harangue were saddened by her departure. I wrote her a note that I didn’t care if she was retired, when I returned to Ireland, she had better be waiting at the airport. She said if I wanted her that badly, she would.

Last fall she sent me an email wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. Even though it’s not a holiday in Ireland, she remembered me speaking about our family’s big meal, and she said she was thinking about me. I wrote back thanking her and saying I hoped to see her soon.

She died before I got the chance, seven months ago, in her early 80s. Lung cancer. What else? She’d been daring it for decades, with that perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke engulfing her. No one was shocked. Some joked she probably snuck a last drag on her way to heaven.

Time is undefeated

During the last two decades, Margaret regularly teamed with a polite and well-spoken male driver named Vivian. When she stopped driving herself (and the Irish roads were far safer once she did) she insisted Vivian and only Vivian drive her authors around. After all, she explained, Vivian used to own his own bookstore, so he was far more qualified than the average motorist.

The two of them made quite a pair, trading stories in the front seat about certain shop owners and radio shows and a few now famous authors whom they both discovered when they were unknown.

When I landed on this recent trip, I came through baggage claim — and there was Vivian, standing by himself. I teared up. It seemed such a sad and incomplete picture, like taking the woman out of American Gothic and leaving only the man with the pitchfork.

During the car ride, we spoke about Margaret. We relived the stories. He told me she’d gone quickly, after a stretch in the hospital. Her viewing was held at Fanagans funeral home, her service was at St. Teresa’s Church, and she was buried in Fingal Cemetery.

It doesn’t get more Irish than that.

“Oh, she was lovely,” Vivian said, wistfully.

Yes, she was, I agreed.

The rain splattered the windshield.

Have you ever known someone by the place you always saw them? Someone so delightful, they colored your view of the city or country where you met? If so, then you know the place is not the same when the face is gone. Ireland is different for me now. A little grayer, a little sadder. No Margaret Daly. Time. Such a heartless thief.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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