To bring her epic cross-country journey full circle, Mary Latham picked a special song to blast as she drove home to Orient across the causeway from East Marion on Nov. 30.
“I was playing Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Mama, I’m Coming Home,’” the wedding photographer told Newsday.
No wonder. Her mother, Patricia, who died in 2013 from cancer, was the driving force behind Latham’s ambitious, feel-good road trip — all three-plus years and more than 43,000 miles of it.
“My mother had told me that there’s always going to be tragedies and horrible things that will happen in our lives and in the world,” said Latham, 32. “But that there would always be more good out there — if you look for it."
She paused. “The most important part of that idea,” she added, “is that you have to look.”
Rudderless and grieving after she lost her mother, Latham — who wears a delicate “Mom” tattoo on her left hand — took time to get ready to embark on such a search. For three years, she bounced between St. John in the Caribbean and her home base in Orient, snapping pictures of joyful brides and grooms to keep busy and pay the bills. “I needed to heal,” she said. “I lived a bit of a gypsy lifestyle.”
On Oct. 29, 2016, she got herself in gear — and a purpose. She buckled up in her mom’s 2008 Subaru Outback, nicknamed Old Blue, and headed off across Orient causeway. Along with a camera, clothes, munchies and water, she had a Google map noting the optimal route across the United States, and, most importantly, a plan. A big one. She would travel to all 50 states, drawing on the power of connection and community to lead her one by one to people engaging in random and not-so-random acts of kindness. She’d turn their stories into a book for hospital waiting rooms.
“There’s no more depressing place or one that feels more hopeless,” Latham said, recalling her own experiences. “I thought, ‘Wouldn't it be nice if people had some stories to read that could give them some hope?’”
She called her mission "More Good." It would be a traveling reminder that in a world of school shootings, political tumult, environmental calamity, inequity and all sorts of rocky roads, there is, like her mother said, more good than bad.
The kindness of strangers
A key part of the endeavor was finding hosts who would give her a place to sleep and a meal or two. Through Facebook and other social media — as well as news reports about her trip — she always secured a place to rest her head courtesy of the kindness of strangers. Sometimes, hosts texted a key code (Arkansas) for the front door if they couldn’t be home when she arrived, or they left a key under a flower pot (California). Three hosts gave her keys for keeps, along with an open invitation to come back (Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey).
In all, 154 host families opened their doors and each connection led to another and another story. Latham turned on her recorder and listened — and what stories she heard.
In Illinois she interviewed Bethany and Hannah Goralski, sisters in their mid-20s who each donated a kidney to transplant patients in honor of their dad, who died of kidney failure.
In Massachusetts, Ben Otero, a young cancer patient in remission, spearheaded a toy drive for other sick kids. Latham mentioned him during her appearance on the “Today" show earlier this year. On her phone is a text message from his mother, Kati. “You’re a love-sharing rock star and your mom is shining down on you every day.” Her son added: “When you mentioned me I had happy tears.”
In Florida, Katie and Mike Emmons talked about losing their son, Taylor, a college sophomore who was killed by a car. They responded by establishing a scholarship in 2010 for kids to attend the high school their son had loved. “They’ve already sponsored nine kids, who still keep in touch with them and visit on holidays,” Latham said.
In Rhode Island, Kelly O’Donnell, a bank teller, recalled how years ago a customer sensed that she was having a rough day and asked if she was OK. The employee brushed it off, saying that it was nothing peanut M&Ms wouldn’t fix. A half-hour later, the customer returned and slid a bag of the candy-covered treats under her teller window.
“The reason I like the Rhode Island story is because people may think they need to make a massive gesture to make a difference,” Latham said. “You don’t have to donate a kidney. Yes, people do that. And that’s amazing. But you don’t have to.
“We’re all capable of little things that make a difference.”
Just as acts of kindness range in size, Latham made a point of going to quiet towns and bustling cities to capture a diverse cross-section of life. (Latham added that she also consciously avoided talking about politics.)
“Growing up in Orient, I was always so aware that this is just such a different area from other parts of Long Island,” said Latham, who studied education and graphic design at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. “I rode my horse to school for the last day of fifth grade. In each state I tried to go to a big city and a small town, because of where I’m from.” Her average stay in each state was two weeks.
Latham acknowledged that while her trek officially ended in Orient around 3:15 p.m. on Nov. 30, she had been back home in the past three years. Road trips are expensive — even with generous hosts and a GoFundMe account that raised more than $29,600, which Latham used to pay for gas, food and other incidentals. Also, she wanted to keep her photography business alive.
“I’ve been home around 10 times to photograph a wedding,” Latham said, adding that her homecoming two weeks ago was the first time back for Old Blue. The car got left behind, parked in hosts’ driveways, during her trips back to the North Fork as well as to Hawaii and Alaska.
Among the roughly 100 people on the causeway for Latham’s big finish was Leanne Simonsen, the widow of NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen, who was killed in February in the line of duty by friendly fire. A day earlier, thanks to a mutual connection, Latham met with Simonsen in her Calverton home to discuss what’s ahead for her after her husband’s death.
“Brian would always find the good in people,” Simonsen told Latham during the emotional conversation. “I have to be Brian’s voice now. I have to now make some good out of this horrible, horrible tragedy.”
On the causeway, where cheers arose when Latham and a police escort drove by two weeks ago, Simonsen applauded More Good and acknowledged that the search for acts of kindness “can be a hard journey."
"Mary’s done a beautiful job,” Simonsen told Newsday.
Jennifer Scott Miceli, 55, director of music education at LIU Post who lives in Huntington, said the same thing earlier that day. In 2004, Miceli created Belle Voci Intergenerational Women’s Choir in honor of her mother, who died of cancer. Miceli had heard about More Good through Latham’s aunt, whose husband is a cancer survivor.
“Being a musician, I felt channeling my grief through the music would be the healthiest way to process my grief,” Miceli said at her home, where members of the group had also gathered. “We come together each year in this musical quilting bee to concertize for cancer prevention and cure.”
Seated side-by-side in the living room as the fireplace crackled, Latham and Miceli were struck by their like-minded efforts. Latham recalled a man she met in West Virginia who traveled often and always presented the person seated next to him with the same question. “He’d ask,” said Latham, “What is the best advice life ever gave you?”
Miceli responded: “We are here to figure out what our gift is — and then share it. And your gift is what you’re doing. It’s such a special gift.” The visit concluded as members of Belle Voci, who’ve all been affected in some way by cancer, sang “Time to Say Goodbye,” an operatic pop song famously recorded by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.
Latham, clearly moved, later remarked, “It takes time to process moments like that. And it’s those times I’m happy to be alone in the car.”
At the Orient Firehouse, down the road from the causeway, there were happy cheers, wine and mile-long sandwiches to celebrate Latham’s accomplishment. Before a band picked up guitars, a Johnny Cash hit, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” played all too fittingly.
Kelli Ritschel Boehle, who met Latham on the Illinois leg of the trek, flew in under the radar. She runs a foundation for cancer patients ages 18 to 24 that was founded after her son died when he was 21 from a rare cancer. “This woman captured our hearts,” Boehle said, adding that she “really wanted to surprise her.”
Jim Latham, Mary’s father, who lives nearby, gave his daughter a long hug. “I’m relieved Mary is home,” he said. “I feel she’s made a positive difference in the world. Each connection she made was special in its own way. Her mother would be bursting at the seams for bringing something so positive into the world.”
Mary credited her mother for “guiding over this journey” and for helping her to get through the challenges, anxieties and loneliness.
“It’s a pure miracle I’m still here, I think my mom has some protective bubble over me,” she said, adding with a shrug, “I’m not even a good driver.”
For the next few months, Latham will be settling back into Orient and her happily expanded role as an aunt. “I had one niece when I left,” she said, “and now I have seven nieces and nephews.”
She’s working on securing a deal for a “More Good” book of vignettes and photos of connections and good works from across the nation. She’d love it to follow the Toms buy-one-give-one model, she said, referring to the Los Angeles-based company known for donating a pair of shoes for a child in need for each pair it sells.
Latham said she already has a clear vision of what key artwork should look like. “I’m opening Old Blue’s passenger door so that readers feel like they going along with me,” she said, describing how she plans to invite the reader in. “We share the ride and the experience. The book is in my head.”
Tracking down "More Good" was “hard work,” she added. “But I looked — and I found it.”
“My plan is still to donate the book to hospital waiting rooms,” she said. “If there are profits, perhaps I could take this search on an international level.”
More about Mary
To read more about Mary Latham’s More Good tour across the United States, visit moregood.today.