Orient woman embarking on 50-state journey ‘toward positivity’

08/11/2016 7:08 AM |

Mary Latham bursts from the sun roof of her mom's 1998 Subaru. (Credit: Jack Kohut/Lifted Sight)

Inside the office she keeps in the back of her father’s barn on Tabor Road, Mary Latham pores over a U.S. map she recently hung on the wall. 

It was last Thursday morning, 24 hours after she announced plans for a road trip across all 50 states. About half the states on the map are circled in black marker. The markings represent places where she’s already established connections with someone she might be able to stay with as she travels the country.

For Ms. Latham, a 29-year-old professional photographer from Orient, this isn’t exactly a vacation spent crashing couches and taking in tourist sites. Instead, the roughly six months she plans to spend on the road are part of a spiritual journey more than three years in the making.

During her trip, Ms. Latham will collect stories of people doing good for others. Upon her return, she aims to take one moving story from each state and package it, along with photos, in a book she hopes can be distributed to hospitals across the country.

Ms. Latham hopes the books will provide comfort to people at a time when they need it most — a position she’s all too familiar with.

Mary Latham and her mom share a happy moment together. (Credit: Latham family)

Mary Latham and her mom share a happy moment together. (Credit: Latham family)

•••

Friday, Dec. 14, 2012

Sometimes grand ideas grow from dark places. Ms. Latham’s journey was born at her desk in New York City on this late autumn morning.

She was scrolling through headlines of a terrible tragedy that had just occurred about 70 miles from her Manhattan office when a coworker who had just returned from a Starbucks run approached her.

Inside the coffee shop was a man purchasing gift cards for his staff. He decided to buy an additional $100 card and asked the barista to use it on the customers behind him until it ran out. Ms. Latham’s colleague was one of his random benefactors.

“You always hear about those kinds of stories,” Ms. Latham recalled in an interview last week. “But I’ve never been affected by one of those directly. It’s more just something you’d hear about in the news.”

Ms. Latham was happy for her coworker, who had recently lost his mother. It also made her think of her own mom, Pat.

Like she did each morning, Ms. Latham picked up the phone and dialed Mom. They discussed the young man in Newtown, Conn., who had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a Bushmaster rifle that morning and never exited, taking with him the lives of 20 children and six adults. Ms. Latham thought about the 6-year-old girl she often babysat and how she’d have to do her best to keep from breaking down when she watched her that weekend.

“My mom was such a wise woman,” Ms. Latham said before recalling the advice her mother gave her during that December 2012 phone call. “She told me, ‘You have to think about that guy who went out and got the coffee. Think about what a beautiful thing he did for those people.’ ”

Within days, Ms. Latham and a friend had sketched out a plan for a Facebook page they’d call The GrAttitude Project.

The idea, which evolved into her upcoming trip, was that people would email stories of positivity and Ms. Latham would share them on the page as a way to balance the negativity that often floods Facebook news feeds.

After all, she could use a little cheering up herself those days.

Ms. Latham was in seventh grade the day her parents and older siblings told her that her mom had breast cancer. Her first instinct was to run away, a short-lived plan that saw her quickly return to her parents’ loving arms.

“To me, as a kid, I thought you get cancer and you die right away,” she recalled.

Pat Latham ultimately beat cancer the first time around, living more than a decade beyond her initial diagnosis and watching each of her four children grow into adulthood.

For Mary, who is five years younger than the sibling closest in age to her, the thought of their mother being rediagnosed never really crept into consciousness.

When her cancer returned, the Lathams — particularly Mary — were devastated.

“She’s the baby of the family; things hit her harder,” said Sarah Latham, Mary’s older sister. “Plus, she’s an artistic person. She feels things more.”

Emily Whitecavage, Mary’s oldest sister, said that as the youngest child, Ms. Latham was the closest of the four siblings to their mother and it was obvious just how difficult losing Mom would be for her.

“With Mary, you always know exactly what she’s feeling,” Ms. Whitecavage said. “She doesn’t have to say it. You feel it on her.”

The Latham family all together. From left: Tom, Sarah, Mary, Jim, Pat, Emily and her husband, Josh Whitecavage.

The Latham family all together. From left: Tom, Sarah, Mary, Jim, Pat, Emily and her husband, Josh Whitecavage.

•••

Monday, Feb. 25, 2013

On this morning, Pat Latham was scheduled for a procedure at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to reduce the fluid that had built up around her heart.

When Mary thinks back to that day, which she calls “pretty much the worst of [her] life,” she remembers being told to check back in eight hours to make sure the surgery went well.

She checked in twice, but wasn’t able to immediately get through.

Finally, close to 10 hours after the surgery, someone from the hospital called the family back.

“They said, ‘Something went wrong, get in here,’ ” Ms. Latham recalled.

Four days later, on March 1, Ms. Latham’s mother died. She was 61 years old.

Her obituary describes a classic Irish Catholic upbringing on Long Island. She attended the all-girls Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead before graduating summa cum laude from St. John’s University in Queens in 1973. She and her husband, Jim, who she met at a lumber convention, got married later that year and eventually settled in Orient, where they raised four children and established a successful company, Port Lumber in Riverhead.

Ms. Whitecavage said her mom was the glue that kept the family together.

“You know how everybody has their faults?” she pondered in an interview this week. “When I think about my mom’s faults, I think about how she talked a lot. That’s the worst thing I can come up with about her.”

One of the last ideas Ms. Latham was able to share with her mother was The GrAttitude Project. Knowing how much her mom liked the initial concept, she’s confident she’d be proud of her current plans.

In those final few days, as the family waited to see if her mom’s condition would improve, Ms. Latham spent a lot of time sitting around the hospital with her dad, her sisters and her brother, Tom.

She admits the Facebook page took a bit of a backseat in those moments, but the stories kept flowing in through emails.
At one point while they sat around, Ms. Latham checked her inbox.

“I opened it and there was one really beautiful story from [another Orient woman] who had lost both her parents,” she said.

The woman had been living in another country and was too busy to attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, something she traditionally did with her mother. A cleaning woman in the country where she was staying went to church in her place and brought back some ashes.

“I read the story out loud and we were all sitting there just crying,” Ms. Latham recalled.

She began writing again and quickly learned how much her posts meant to people. One woman she’d met only once before wrote to say that after she got home from her long shifts working as a nurse, she’d lie in bed with her husband reading aloud the latest offering. It was the best part of her day, she told Ms. Latham.

Julia Loveless, 24, of Greenport is one of The GrAttitude Project’s more than 2,100 followers. She began reading Ms. Latham’s page two years ago, not long after her father, Gary, was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.

“I wrote to her about two years ago after one of her posts about her mom,” recalled Ms. Loveless, whose father lost his three-year battle in June. “It moved me to tears. I certainly feel a connection to her because of that shared experience.”

•••

Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016

At 9:15 on this morning, Ms. Latham announced her road trip on The GrAttitude Project page. It began with the words, “This fall I am driving my mother’s old Subaru to every single state in the U.S. …”

The post included a five-minute video she filmed and edited with Jack Kohut of Greenport. An aerial photographer and videographer, Mr. Kohut has known Ms. Latham since they were in high school and he spent summers on the North Fork.

“I’m really passionate about flying drones and video editing,” he said. “So when Mary came to me and I saw how passionate she was about this project and cancer awareness and what happened to her mom and spreading the word about giving back, I wanted to be a part of that.”

The video provides details of how this latest plan, which Ms. Latham has dubbed the “More Good Road Trip,” will work. Ms. Latham doesn’t plan to stay in hotels, so it’s essential she makes connections in all 50 states. In order to find the best stories in those places, she’ll seek help from local newspapers.

Ms. Latham is working with her brother, a trucker, to develop a route, but estimates she’ll add about 13,000 miles to the 2008 Subaru.

In an effort to offset the cost of travel and creating the book, Ms. Latham has set up a page on gofundme.com. In less than a week, she had raised more than $3,100 toward her goal of $15,000.

No matter how much she ends up raising, Ms. Latham will put the key in the ignition and step on the gas in less than three months. The trip has no definitive timetable from there.

Anyone who knows Ms. Latham or has followed her Facebook page in recent years knows she travels frequently. Depressed in the months after her mother passed away, she quit her full-time job in the city and purchased a one-way ticket to the Caribbean in search of happiness.

Family and her growing photography business have prompted her to return, but the seasonality of her profession, which consists mainly of wedding and engagement photos, has also given her the freedom to keep searching for inner peace.

There’s something different about this trip, though.

“This time she’s not running away,” Ms. Whitecavage said. “She’s looking to cheer everyone else up, not just herself. In a world where negativity is all around us, she’s running toward positivity.”

Ms. Latham said she's most looking forward to exploring Montana and the Dakotas for its scenic beauty. (Credit: Jack Kohut/Lifted Sight)

Ms. Latham said she’s most looking forward to exploring Montana and the Dakotas for its scenic beauty. (Credit: Jack Kohut/Lifted Sight)

•••

Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016

Ms. Whitecavage plans to give her sister a gift bag of items she’ll need when Ms. Latham sees her sisters in Greenport that morning. It will be the first official stop on the More Good Road Trip.

From there, Ms. Latham will say goodbye to her dad, pay respects to her mom and head for the Orient Point Ferry. Yes, in true Orient fashion, a ferry ride will lead Ms. Latham to Connecticut, the first state she’ll visit.

Outside of New England and other parts of the East Coast, Ms. Latham hasn’t seen much of the country. As a photographer, Montana and the Dakotas are among the places she’s most looking forward to visiting.

“I picture myself driving in the early mornings and seeing how beautiful that part of the country is,” she said.

Ms. Latham said that while she envisions a meeting with executives at Memorial-Sloan Kettering in which she drops off 500 copies of the book, that’s not exactly how she’ll measure the success of her trip.

“Even if it’s just me and my dad handing out five copies of the book at the Orient Country Store, I’ll be happy,” she said.

Ms. Latham said she still feels her mother’s presence and will continue to on the trip. She even sees her mom in her sleep.

These visions stand out from others, because whenever she’s having them she knows she’s dreaming and she’s aware that her mother is no longer alive.

“I had that dream the night we finished the video,” Ms. Latham said. “It’s not exactly the same dream. There’s different settings and everything, but it’s always me and her. She smiles and hugs me and then I wake up.”

Ms. Latham hasn’t quite finalized how she will honor her mother on the journey. She may bring some of her ashes — or what’s left from what they scattered behind the family home at Peter’s Neck Point — with her on the trip. She’s also thought about bringing a painting of the two of them to ride shotgun.

“In some way, shape or form, she’ll be there watching over me,” Ms. Latham said.

Top caption: Mary Latham bursts from the sun roof of her mom’s 1998 Subaru. (Credit: Jack Kohut/Lifted Sight)

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