Love blossoms in unlooked-for places

We first met Mary Browne over a quarter of a century ago. We were covering the Knox Zoning Board, of which she was a member, when an organization with the motto “help, to be helped” wanted to set up a drug rehabilitation center in Knox. The centers, which at the time were scattered throughout Europe and the Americas, worked on a model where reformed addicts helped those with addictions.

In the midst of much fear and skepticism from Knox residents, the program withdrew its application. But throughout, Mary Browne offered a clear voice to listen with compassion to those who might be suffering and in need of help.

We learned then that she didn’t draw lines between self and others, or build walls separating people into categories of good and bad. She saw humanity in everyone.

Most recently, in the autumn of 2015, we wrote about the way Browne uses her 1800s barn as a canvas, displaying painted depictions of the quilts she has made for the people she loves. “On the side facing the pond is a quilt I made for Steve and me — Life 101,” she said, referring to her late husband. “It has hearts and thistles,” said Browne, explaining their meaning: “You can’t know complete joy if you haven’t had pain along the way.”

She has known more than her share of pain. Her son Erik was born with disabilities including blindness. Her son Bart took his own life. Her husband died in 2012 when his tractor overturned, killing him. He was 73.

And yet, Browne sounded joyful as she described the quilts made in their honor.

A spiritual healer and minister, Browne has traveled to different parts of the world to understand various ways of living and healing. Her feet are covered with intricate tattoos based on a design from Morocco. One represents male, the other female. “They are identical — it doesn’t matter,” she said of the lesson her feet represent. “If we can get beyond gender bias, we’ll be a long way toward recovering our soul,” said Browne.

She traveled to France to study Catharism, a movement in southern Europe in the 12th Century. “They were a group of people with religious beliefs that embrace kindness, compassion, and generosity,” she said. Cathars were denounced by the Catholic Church as Satanists.

Browne went to Montségur, one of the last strongholds of the Cathars where, in 1243, those who would not renounce their faith were burned.

“I went to Montségur where that debacle occurred...I went part way up and sat under a tree,” said Browne. “I did a meditation and was just gone. When I came back to myself, I could see where they had died below me. They didn’t try to escape.”

So we paid heed when we got a phone call from Browne this week. She said she wanted to warn people about a scam she had suffered. She thought it would help others not to get caught in the same trap.

Browne had gotten a call on Friday, saying her grandson had been in a car crash in Chicago on his way to a concert and police had found three pounds of marijuana in his car. A man claiming to be a public defender said he didn’t want to see her grandson spend the weekend in jail, which could be avoided if she posted $4,000 for bail.

“I could send the money by getting Walmart gift cards,” Browne said. She did as she was told.

“They were preying on a grandmother’s fears,” she said.

Then she got another call, saying bags of pills had been found in the car, and the bail had gone to $8,000. Her bank stayed open beyond closing time and Browne got the money and went back to Walmart for more gift cards.

“They played one other card,” said Browne. “They said there was a gag order and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I don’t know the law. I asked the ‘public defender’ where he went to law school. He said Stanford. I said, ‘Good choice.’”

When she got another call, Browne said there was nothing she could do. “I was out of money,” she said. “There was no way I could send more.”

On Sunday morning, she called her children who came to her house. She learned the 21-year-old grandson she thought she had been helping was home, asleep.

“The police came in 20 minutes,” said Browne of Albany County Sheriff’s deputies. “I gave them a list of everything I’d done….They said this was a scam targeting older people with grandchildren, hitting the Hill and Voorheesville...The police felt they got their information from Facebook,” she said of the swindlers.

Browne said she called The Enterprise because she worried others might fall prey as she had. “I don’t have a television. I don’t listen to the radio except to CDs. The only newspaper I read is The Enterprise. I don’t have a computer or email. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t want to be fried,” she said, explaining her choices in living the way she does.

“I’m probably in the wrong century,” Browne said. “I love where I am. I love what I’m able to do.”

Browne said she has no expectations she’ll get her money back, including the loan she took for the final payment. But she is not bitter about it.

We’ve recorded her version of the scam — spoken with honesty, without regard to how it might make her look purely because, she said, “I think my age group isn’t current with all the possibilities.” She wanted to warn others, so we obliged.

But what came next is what stunned us.

“The next day,” Browne said, referring to the day after she had told her family and the police about the scam, “I got another phone call.” She said to the person who was posing as a bail bondsman, “You’re in Albany, right? I was wondering if you would have coffee with me...I want an opportunity to meet the person who scammed me so I can forgive you.”

He hung up. She surmised he thought she would bring the police. “The police didn’t know about it,” said Browne. “Above all, I believe in karma. Forgiveness has to be made.”

Commenting on her situation without a hint of self-pity, Browne said, “I now have a loan I can’t pay back, but no one has died. It’s only money. Money is only paper….Those boys missed something by not having coffee with me. It was their time to be forgiven.”

She also said that the morning her children had come to her farm when she called, after the scam had been revealed, Browne said, “Wait, I want you to sit down. I’ve got something to say: ‘You came and I didn’t tell you why. I want you to know I would have done this for any one of you. That’s what you mean. I got to tell you all.’”

So what we learned this week from Browne perhaps was not what she intended — warning against a scam. Certainly, it is good to be careful with money and with who is trusted.

But the more important lesson was that Browne didn’t feel bitter or angry about her loss. Beyond that, she was willing to forgive those who had tricked her and stolen from her. She turned her loss around to be a positive statement on her love of family.

We doubt we’d be able to deal with loss so well — to be able to see so clearly what really matters — but we’ve recorded her story in hopes others can draw from it in times of need.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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