09 January 2010

A life well lived

When my mother was my age I was five. Can you imagine me with a five year old? She worked the 7-to-3 shift at the Green Hill Manor, Fowler's nursing home, and then she'd come home to a five year old. And a 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 and 21 year old. At my age, she had a full time job out of the house and a full time job in it. She must have been exhausted all the time, but I don't remember ma ever once saying that she was tired. There's no way I can imagine doing what she did - in one generation it went from normal (or at least doable) to unthinkable. I have no contemporaries who have the same life that she had; it's just not one that you can picture in 2010 the way maybe you could in 1973.

How did she do it? How did she cook our meals and clean our clothes and make sure we all knew how to behave in public? How did she have the energy to care for the families in the Migrant Camp? How did she have time to be involved at church, or to go to Parish Council meetings? No wonder she was sharp with us at times. No wonder she was hospitalized for a heart attack at 45, though it was a misdiagnosis and it turned out to be an allergic reaction. I wouldn't have been able to get out of bed every day and face us, get our breakfasts, get us out the door, go to work for eight hours at a small town nursing home, come home, get dinner, pray the rosary, make sure homework was done, get us into bed and get up and do it all over again. And on Wednesday nights get everyone who needed it to CCD, and on Sundays get us all to church. It's exhausting to think about. She must have been on her feet for over twelve hours a day, every day.

And for what? Because it was what was done? Because it was her duty? Because it didn't occur to her to ask about her lot in life, or enquire about other options? I never asked her what she thought about her life. It didn't occur to me as a kid, and at the time of her diagnosis and death I was in my last semester of college and barely aware of my own consciousness, and not thinking about such things.

There were some times when I was a kid when mom wasn't working outside the home, but not many of them. When we moved into Lafayette she got a job right away at the Comfort Nursing Home, across the street from St. Boniface where I went to junior high. She worked the 3 - 11 shift, which was all she could get at first, so I'd troop over to see her after school to say hi. At every nursing home where she worked she'd introduce me to some of the residents, and I'd visit with them, every day I went. There was nothing ever said about how my grandma was in a nursing home a state away and we couldn't see her all the time, so maybe if I was visiting with a lonely elderly woman here then some kid in Springfield, Illinois, was visiting my grandma - no talk of "karma" or of "what comes around goes around," like somehow the universe was keeping score. It was done because it was clearly the right, decent, humane thing to do. And no fuss was made of it, it was simply done, like so much in my mom's life.

She was inherently decent, and I don't know from what wellspring she found the surplus time and energy, but she took in stray people who needed help. All the time. In Fowler there were the Mexican migrant workers, and after we moved into town there was Lena, an old German woman who had no living family here and who Mom often had over to dinner, and to whose house we'd often traipse to clean and cook, and tend her yard. All for free, of course. I don't know how mom first met her - at church, maybe? - but I can picture her clearly, sitting at our table in her housecoat, thick accent and even thicker glasses, telling stories about her time right after she "moofed to dis country." Dad wasn't a fan. We were always polite because she was company, and I actually liked Lena - she was foreign and therefore exotic, and she had a cache of great stories with which to entertain me when she found out how much I loved history. The woman lived under the Kaiser, and while her stories didn't deal much with the realpolitik of the interwar period just that knowledge kept me rapt as she'd talk about her life as a little girl, and their farm, and the cadence of her life.

Then there was Patty, another woman who I have no idea how Mom met. Patty moved in with us, along with her two huge malamutes, for a year. They were beautiful dogs, and the white one had one blue eye and one grey eye. They tore the hell out of our yard, though, and Patty had a pronounced limp and an irascible temperament, and spent a lot of time in her room. Mom was helping her get some physical therapy, or something, though I also remember trips to Springfield with her to see my Aunt the Dominican nun, so possibly she was thinking about a vocation in the convent. Even as a 14 year old kid I could tell that Patty was someone to whom life hadn't been kind, far beyond her physical challenges. Dad wasn't a fan.

Another summer we had a woman staying with us from Peoria, Illinois, for some reason. I want to say it was health related, but I could be wrong - I don't remember any particular physical presentations of a health issue. There was Andrew, a Nigerian seminary student who was with us one year for Christmas, who was unfailingly polite and unfailingly skilled at chess. There was always someone extra for dinner, or for a holiday, who had nowhere to be. There was always some task with which I was charged to help someone out - to rake someone's leaves or to ride my bike over to Mrs. S's and ask her if she needed anything or to volunteer to serve at 7:00 a.m. mass when no one else did, even though that meant that she'd have to get up and drive me. My mom baked cookies and fruitcakes for everyone at Christmas - most of the people on our paper route, the priests and nuns, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and when we moved to town, the neighbors, my teachers at school, my piano teacher, the mail carrier and the garbage men. Her community was basically everyone she met, and she felt a responsibility to help those in her community who needed it.

There are no bridges or buildings with her name on them, or endowed chairs, or financial legacy for her kids to live on. There isn't even a nursing home wing or hospital floor named after her. Her health was never reliable (which makes her energy even more remarkable), and her allergies got worse and worse as she crossed fifty. When she was 58 she was diagnosed with cancer; when she was 59, she died from it. I was 22.

I have been thinking about what makes our lives meaningful lately, thinking about Stevie, who died at 39 (and requested that donations be made to the humane society), and my friend Gerald White, a fellow English major at Marquette who died at 35 (and after whom a Memorial Fund was named at the University of North Texas, in honor of his research on visual representations of gay minority men), and other people I've known. Does only 35 years mean that a life isn't well lived? Hardly. But what does a "well lived life" mean, after all, and to what ought I aspire?

I got to visit my mom the weekend before she died - I was going to wait a week but on an impulse I rented a car with an overdrawn credit card and drove down from Milwaukee to see her. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs. When I got to her room she was asleep, so I hung around, waiting for her to wake up, talking with my dad and my other siblings who were in and out. At one point late at night she stirred, looked at me through barely opened eyes and asked me, "Stephen? When'd you get here? Where'd you come from?"

Knowing she was possibly on morphine and probably incoherent, I answered, "Milwaukee, ma. I rented a car and drove down tonight."

"Who came with you?"

"Just me, ma."

"That's too bad." I had no idea what she meant by this, so I paused, wondering, and then she finished her thought: "With the bags under your eyes you could have packed for a family of four!"

"Hey, you're not looking too good yourself, there!" I told her, and she smiled. She kept herself awake for another hour or so and we had a great talk, and we got to say our goodbyes.

She had lived a good life, and she knew it; and what's more she was still being generous and looking out for those who needed looking out for - at that moment in that hospital room, me.

I think of all the people who were less lonely because of my mom, or less hungry, or less dirty, or less healthy, or less ignorant; of all the people who had a little more dignity in their lives and who were comforted materially and emotionally by her countless acts of kindness and generosity. It's profoundly humbling.

My mom lived a remarkable life of toil and dignity and charity and grace in relative anonymity. No question, her life was a life well lived.


hina333 said...

I feel like I know her through you, well done Ma Brennan. :)

CFox said...

I agree. I also feel like I know her a little. :-)

Celeste said...

Your mother sounds like an amazing woman. What a wonderful tribute to her.

This reminds me so much of my grandmother. Recently I asked what ever had happened to my grandmother's wedding dress. Apparently, she cut it up to make a costume for her best friend's daughter's school play. As you point out, this type of action seems unimaginable in 2010, and yet I know my grandmother was not the only woman who cut up something that meant a lot to her in order to provide for others. I bet your mom did the same thing.

On a side note, I can't decide which is more impossible--to imagine you with a five year old, or with a 21 year old. At your age, your mom's oldest child was 21. Can you imagine that?! When she was my age, my mom had a 13, 11, and 9 year old and had been married for 18 years. I simply cannot imagine that.

ekshaughn said...

I was lucky enough to stumble upon your blog this morning and even luckier to have met your mother many years ago. To have managed the family as she did was nothing short of a heroic feat.

When it comes to turning over your life to children, let me tell you this (and please know that I certainly to do not compare my life with two small ones to hers with ten) -- we just do it. There's no real analysis, no deep introspection: little ones who we bring into the world need their parents. Some days suck, yes, but we just make it happen somehow. Because the love for your child is bigger than you are. Bigger than your own needs and desires. I know your mom loved you in the same way.

Annie K said...

Oh Brennan--I loved this post. Thanks for sharing such great memories of your mom and her generosity.