Today, I’d like to celebrate two special women in my life: my mom, Joanne, and my maternal grandmother, Mary. My mother discovered she was pregnant with me the day of Mary’s wake. Hence, I was given her name, and believe (or hope, anyway) that some of her spirit found its way into me.
Mary—a second-generation Irish immigrant—had a difficult childhood. Her family was very poor, as her father had been killed in an industrial accident, so Mary was sent to work in one of the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills as a teenager. She wasn’t able to go to high school, as the money she earned was essential for the feeding and clothing of her family. And yet, she was highly intelligent.
I’m not sure how she met my grandfather—a child of Irish immigrant parents whose family had a history of alcohol abuse—but the two married and raised five children (four boys and a girl), the youngest of whom is mother, Joanne. My grandfather was a strict, no-nonsense man, and a firefighter, and the family struggled but was reasonably happy.
All of that changed one night in 1949, when my mom was ten years old. Her oldest brother Joe—a WWll veteran who was getting ready to attend college—was killed in a terrible car crash.
According to my mom, her life turned upside down after that. Her mother and father were beyond devastated, and yet, they did their best to be good parents to their surviving children, especially my mom, who was still a little kid. Less than a year after the accident, they took her to New York City, hoping she’d have a good time. I have no doubt that this trip was Mary’s idea.
Unfortunately, not long after that, Mary, still grieving miserably, suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side, and she never walked again. Her days were spent bedridden, and the two older boys soon went off to college. My mom and her brother Bob—the only two children left at home—took care of their bedridden mother, but my mom did most of the work, especially changing the bedpans and other unpleasant duties.
Mary wasn’t able to attend my mother’s wedding, but there’s a beautiful, sad picture of my mom in her wedding gown at Mary’s bedside. Every time I see that picture, I cry. Mary has a corsage pinned to her nightgown, and she’s smiling a glorious smile.
As I mentioned earlier, she died about nine months before my birth, but I feel incredibly proud to be the child and grandchild of two such strong women. Their lives were marred by tragedy, but they kept fighting and smiling. My mom—who lost a baby in 1977, and her husband (my amazing father, Jerry) in 2001—is still smiling today. Yes, there are times when we all cry, but she’s helped me to learn that you can get through the worst of it if you try to appreciate the good things in this world.
**This post was updated on March 12, 2015, as my mom read it and corrected a couple of things!