Archive for March, 2006

Mary McCann: 1921-2005

Today is the first anniversary of one of the most important people in my life: my mother’s only sister, Mary McCann, the oldest of the six children in the Paige family.

Everybody should have an Aunt Mary in his life. Aunt Mary was the person who would walk into a room, and faces all over it would light up: “Mary’s here!” Instant party! No matter what the subject, she always had a tart, and extremely funny, rejoinder (none of which, naturally, I can recall at the moment). After World War II, when housing was so tight, a succession of relatives lived with her and her family, often for a year or two. Her house was shabby, and never very well furnished, but that never seemed to matter: The meals she turned out were masterpieces, not of haute cuisine, but of down-home cooking. Anyone who thinks that Irish cooking is bland and tasteless, never ate one of Aunt Mary’s pot roasts. Nearly all of my fondest memories of her home take place in either the dining room or the tiny kitchenette.

Speaking of Irish, she was fiercely Irish and fiercely Catholic. The fact that her husband was a Scot was explained, “The family was really Irish, but they had to live in Glasgow.” (Not according to my uncle.) The fact that one of her grandmothers had been (gasp) German, was simply never mentioned. She attended Mass daily, but she wasn’t one of those Sweet, Genteel Irish Ladies, not by a long shot. If there was a battle to be engaged, her head would rise up and her eyes would flash; you could tell she was enjoying every second of the conflict.

She was, according to herself, one of the first feminists, and that’s probably true: She worked all the years I knew her, and in the 1950s and 1960s, it was highly unusual for a woman to work outside the home who wasn’t a widow. She was the mainstay of the New York State American Legion — organized all their conventions for nearly forty years, kept all the statistics in her head, did all the bookkeeping, and did it all on a part-time basis: She only worked 9:00-3:00. My mother watched her two sons between the time school let out, and the time their mother came to collect them, usually around 4:00 (the train from Manhattan to our part of Queens took 45 minutes, then there was a bus ride and a longish walk to our house).

There were downsides to her life. Her mother died when she was eleven years old, and the only other person in the house to oversee its care and upkeep was a 67-year-old grandmother. Consequently, she spent far too much of her childhood working and trying to chivvy her brothers and sister into doing their fair share of housework (I have the impression she was never successful at that). Her marriage was forged in World War II, and I’m not referring to the date. She was married for over 40 years, and of them, maybe the first three were somewhat happy: Two people who grew up motherless are not a match made in heaven. She was a shocking housekeeper: While her house was always clean, it was never tidy, and considering that my family consisted of seven people in four rooms, while hers consisted of four people in a six-room house, that’s not a very high standard of tidiness on my part. Housekeeping wasn’t her thing; numbers were. She had the house paid off in ten years, and how many of us can say that, these days?

Towards the end of her life, it all told. After retirement, she had literally nothing with which to occupy herself, and as she turned inward, she became suspicious of nearly everyone in her life. The last two years of her life, she lived in New Hampshire, where two nieces and a nephew could keep an eye on her; of her two sons, one had moved to the West Coast, and the other was someone she just couldn’t get along with. She was not happy about that move, and let us all know it, every day. Eventually we had her evaluated by a social worker; it was clear that she could stand to live in an assisted living facility, since she made a habit of calling on people for help in the wee hours of the morning, and didn’t always know where she was. At one point, the social worker asked if she had any living brothers or sisters, and Aunt Mary replied, “One brother.” Since I knew what the social worker was getting at — a brother’s wishes for her care would always be considered over nieces and nephews — I quickly noted that her one surviving brother was an alcoholic, and not really capable of informed judgement. After the social worker left, Aunt Mary turned on me: “Uncle Richie is not an alcoholic, and how you could say such a thing to a complete stranger is beyond me.” Characteristic of the Irish: Let’s not admit that there are Problems in the family, What Will the Neighbors Think.

Yet her death was peaceful — and typical: She had hung on all day, although we all knew the end was near, and we couldn’t figure out why. Around 3:00 p.m., to our surprise, my nephew Richard showed up, and we all turned to him with exclamations of, “Rich, hi!” with evident surprise in our voices — and she expired. Not five minutes later, her brother, also Richard, called to say hello to her (he lives in Tennessee), and we had to break the news to him that she was gone. We thought that perhaps she had been holding on until her brother could arrive, and when we all exclaimed, “Rich!” she thought it was her brother. Then her oldest son, with his mother’s characteristic sharp wit, added, “Unless she knew he was going to call, and she didn’t want to talk to him.”

She was brought back to her hometown for burial, and buried from the church where she had been baptized and married. When I think of her, I always have the two Aunt Marys in mind, the one I always knew and admired, and the shrivelled, suspicious old lady she had become. In retrospect, I wish I had never met that old lady; the other memories are the better ones.

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Yeah, right.

Yesterday, the New Hampshire Senate voted against allowing pharmacies to inform parents that their daughters had purchased the morning-after pill. (It also voted against allowing pharmacists to opt out of selling this pill according to their consciences.) So what do I read in this morning’s news??


Heaven forfend we should Trample on the Rights of Young Women. Yeah, but when they croak because they took a medication that was unsafe for them, who’s going to be left with the blame? Not to mention the grief. Who’s going to care? Not Planned Parenthood.

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Yes, there really is a Signal Street in downtown Rochester, and stopped at a gated crossing, I thought of the inevitable.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack,
rumblin’ down the railroad track,
loaded cars with screeching wheels,
round the bend on roads of steel.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
We used to stand by the railroad track,
hand in hand, my boy and me,
and watch as far as the eye could see.

My boy’s a railroad man these days,
with a railman’s build, and a railman’s ways,
an eagle eye on every gauge —
earning a railman’s honest wage.

I’m proud of what my boy’s become;
I’m glad his dream never came undone.
But now, when I hear that clickety-clack,
I wonder if he’ll ever come back,

And standing hand in hand with me,
look ahead as far as the eye can see.
So I sit and watch the train go slow,
and remember those days of long ago —
hand in hand, my boy and me,
watching as far as the eye could see.

copyright 2006 by Meg Lark

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How Irish Am I, Anyway??

You’re not Irish. Not even a wee bit.
Not even on St. Patrick’s Day!
<a href="How Irish Are You?

That’s a relief.

Actually, I’m half Irish, on my mother’s side — probably not even half, if you count the fact that one of my great-grandmothers was German — but it’s not something I brag about, particularly. In my experience, never a truer word was spoke than, “The Irish: They’d rather fight than feed,” and I have no excuse for debate-for-the-sake-of-debate.

But this was a fun test, and I bet most people test more Irish than I did!

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“Dutch uncles” seem to have gone out of style these days, those men who weren’t really relatives, but were such close friends of the family that children were encouraged to call them “Uncle So-and-So.” Well, Aunt Clara would have been a “Dutch aunt.” She lived next door to us when I was a kid, she and her husband and her father-in-law. She had two sons, too, but one was in high school when we moved there, and one was in the Navy; and shortly after, the younger son left to do his two years in the Army (there was a draft back then). So she and “Uncle Pete,” her husband, and “Old Mr. Brunck,” her father-in-law, were left to themselves.

In other words, she was full in the throes of the Empty Nest Syndrome.

I never really liked going over to her house; it was always a mess, very untidy, probably because she spent so much time outside of it. She went shopping a very great deal, and while I don’t think any of her purchases were ever extravagant, they certainly kept her from having to confront that empty, quiet house, in a time when women didn’t work outside the home, especially German women — and Aunt Clara and Uncle Pete were emphatically German. I can recall walking into her house on a Sunday morning and smelling Sauerbraten, and it almost made me sick to my stomach — now, I love Sauerbraten, and German cooking in general.

One of the things Aunt Clara did to try to fill up her time was to start a Girls’ Club for the neighborhood girls. There were four of us — a classmate, two cousins of mine, and me — and she taught us all how to cross stitch. I don’t know if it ever stuck with any of the others, but as for me, every time I pick up a piece of cross stitch, I give thanks to her and for her. She has helped me fill my own empty nest with an activity a lot more productive than shopping.

She did more for me than that, though. I never fully understood her relationship with my mother, or with me for that matter, until one day when the three of us were going shopping, probably for Easter dresses. I was someone who could never do anything right, as far as my mother was concerned, and on this particular occasion she lit into me as soon as the car was in motion — something about my stockings, or my coat, or some trivial idiocy having to do with my general disregard for haute couture. Suddenly Aunt Clara said, “Eileen,” in that tone of voice you use when you’re warning someone of something. And my mother stopped cold. Was I floored?! I was sixteen, and that was the first inkling I ever had that anyone actually noticed what a misery my life was, and would actually dare to say something to the chief cause of that misery. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had hope. (And now you know why I didn’t post anything about my mother on the anniversary of her death in December — still working on that one.)

As time went on, and her sons came home and got married, Aunt Clara seemed to grow more and more discontent. She would often visit my mother, and while I have no idea what they talked about, it was pretty obvious than Aunt Clara was vastly unhappy. I know that a considerable portion of her time was devoted to complaining about her daughters-in-law! Then Uncle Pete died quite suddenly — he developed lung cancer, and this being in the days before chemotherapy, he was gone within six months. I remember her saying that at night, she would just pretend that he was away on a fishing trip with his friends, but how far can that take you? Gradually she sank further and further into herself, and one day, after she had stopped answering her telephone, my mother and her sister got in touch with her son and got into the house. They found her still alive, but with a bottle of pills next to her, and she said to my mother, “Eileen, I took Pete’s pills”; and a day or so after, she died.

Only a year after that, I was married and living in Germany, and how often I wished she had hung on just a little longer — it would have been so much fun to write to her and describe what I was seeing, and trade recipes, maybe even speak a little German with her, though I don’t know how much she knew. I know that as a staunch Lutheran, she would have appreciated hearing about our visits to Worms and Augsburg, site of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession.

She’s someone I keep in my prayers. She was so much more important to me than she ever knew.

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