Usually the female subjects that I blog about are famous, infamous, or otherwise notable women of statewide interest. For every famous woman, there are thousands of not-so-famous women whose lives have enriched our existence, and whose stories should be told.
Such is the case with Mary. Two months ago at the age of 87-years young, she passed away, holding the hands of her loving daughter and great-granddaughter.
She was born in Manchester NH in 1919 to a family of Irish heritage. Her parents were humble workers–her father a chauffeur, and her mother a servant to the richer families of the city, then later a busy parent of twelve children.
Only Mary and one brother, the youngest of the family, were born in a hospital (the older siblings having been born at home). She grew up in a unassuming three-decker house on the southeast side of the Merrimack River–an area then mostly sandbank with scattered houses. Like several children of Manchester in the 1920s, she contracted polio. Luckily she survived, but was left with a shortened leg and consequently a limp. For her entire life she was acutely self-conscious of that disability, but she never allowed it to slow her down.
She grew up during the “Great Depression“–a time that was not at all great, except that no one had to be taught to recycle. She used everything up, as there was little to throw away. She learned to live simply, to barter for bargains, and to stretch the household’s skimpy budget. She had been taught how to sew by an older sister, so everyday clothing was hand-made.
She saved every penny, and attended college at a time when many of her friends did not, receiving an associate degree in accounting. This profession had a practical application when she later helped each of her children to start a bank account when they reached the age of 16, taught them how to reconcile that account, and also how to complete their own income tax forms.
When America was drawn into the conflict of World War II, all of her brothers plus her sweetheart enlisted, leaving Mary and the other family women behind. They had to find a way to make house loan payments, and buy the necessities of life. Every day was a financial struggle, but nonetheless the family home was a magnet for orphaned children, and any family member not able to now afford their own place. Like many woman of the time, she married her sweetheart and waited patiently for him until the war’s end.
Finally World War II came to a close, and the boys who left returned home as men. Memorabilia that she saved from this era include lovely silk pillows from Hawaii, love letters from Key West Florida, colorful post cards from Newport, Rhode Island, and countless gray-toned photographs of grinning men in uniform being embraced by their doting families.
Several years passed, and just when she started to believe what the doctors had told her–that she would never have children–she gave birth to 4 children in 3 years, two boys and twin girls. Besides this motley group, her aging mother also resided with her. Mary’s husband had been working in the local tannery, but after the twins were born he found a modest, but better paying job, as a mechanic and maintenance man.
Mary made sure that her family never went without the basics of life. In addition she enriched their days with music, classic books, poetry, art–resulting in an appreciation of life’s simple gifts. Love abounded, and her home was always full of visitors and laughter. In these days before the internet, she invested in a lovely (and expensive) set of encyclopedias which she enhanced by inserting hundreds of clippings from newspapers and magazines.
As a Catholic, she cut every conceivable financial corner to save the funds to allow all of her children to attend parochial school. Contrary to the official dogma of the time, she taught her children that good people of all beliefs would find a place in heaven. When one of her daughters embraced the Buddhist faith (and did not believe in heaven) she would tease her that she would see her there anyway.
After a few years she gave birth to a son whose life was challenged. The doctors told her that he would never be “normal,” and urged her to place him in an institution. She refused the doctor’s advice and took her son home. He was instantly beloved by his father and siblings who never saw his shortcomings, only his accomplishments. He was still a tiny infant when he died in Mary’s arms. She saved his little booties, hugging them for comfort when she was alone. Little did she realize that this visible act of devotion taught her children an important lesson in tolerance and kind consideration for the disabled.
A year later Mary gave birth to another son, the only one of her children that she truly planned for. Strangely this child was often teased by his siblings that “the milkman brought him.”
Her children grew. She patched her clothing (even her underwear) instead of buying new ones, so that she could provide them with accordion and piano lessons. Any special interests that her children had, from scouting to sports, were somehow accommodated. She encouraged volunteerism by example, giving freely of her time and energy to several New Hampshire organizations. She continued volunteering until she was in her 70s, when she was no longer physically able to drive her car.
As time passed her children left home, married, and had children of their own. Some of them faced difficult times, and she welcomed them back home when they needed her. She freely shared this same love with both family members and strangers–many were attracted to her singular ability to make them feel loved and valued.
Her dear husband contracted cancer. She saw him through the last months and days of his life, and was at his bedside when he passed. He had told her, “you are the strongest person I’ve ever known,” and probably she was. She was determined to live independently, and as she moved into her twilight years, she maintained a sense of humor about her increasingly white hair, frail body, and failing eyesight.
At her death, she left little of monetary value. But she had taken the time to write loving letters of comfort to her children, asking them not to cry for her. In every nook and cranny of her home she left precious gifts–an audio recording of beloved family, a box of sand from a trip to the ocean, a colorful card with a crayon signature… Her obituary in the newspaper (which she wrote herself) provided the usual description of who, what, when. But it could not nearly describe this lovely woman.
As was the lifetime story of many other New Hampshire mothers, Mary’s journey was composed of many joys and sorrows. She met life bravely, and died peacefully. The difference between Mary and other mothers, is that Mary was mine.
I miss you, Mom.