Imagine a time when there was not the sound of airplanes overhead or jet contrails streaked across a sky.
Imagine a time when there were no radio broadcasts.
Imagine a time when theaters showed only silent movies with subtitles or musical accompaniment.
Imagine a time when there were very few motor vehicles on any road. and you could only hear the clip clop of a horse-drawn cart or the bells of a trolley car.
No televisions, cell phones, iPads, iPods or computers 97 years ago. A candle for each year of my mother’s life would surely melt the frosting off a birthday cake.
Mary Louise Maher was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan barely two weeks before the cessation of hostilities in World War I — an armistice for the War to End All Wars. She took her first breaths just as the great influenza outbreak of 1918 gathered momentum and would take the lives of 30 million worldwide — proportionally more than the bubonic plague, AIDS epidemic and Ebola pandemic combined.
There were a few years after the guns of war stopped firing that tranquility settled over the nearby villages and farmlands of mother’s grandparents, aunts and uncles where little “Sis” B as she was called by her three brothers B played in the barns and meadows. Mother once recalled happily riding in the rumble seat of her parents’ Hudson convertible when they suddenly encountered a bumpy, stretch of unpaved road. She bounced off the padded cushion into the air and landed upright on her bottom as her parents continued on their merry way never realizing that little Mary Louise was left sitting in the middle of a lane. I asked my mother whether her parents were frightened to death once they realized what had happened. She laughed and said that she supposed so, but added that she was never in any danger because there were only three cars in all of Kalamazoo. She had a better chance of getting run over by a horse and cart.
Yet trouble was never far away. Mother had a fleeting memory of standing on the front porch of an uncle=s farmhouse one summer evening as a parade of men in white sheets and hoods marched down the lane towards a ball field where a flaming cross was lit. All too soon there would be the roar of the Roaring 20s and the crash of the stock market in 1929. By then Henry Ford was mass-producing automobiles. By then little Mary Louise had ridden in the open cockpit of a barnstormer’s bi‑plane at a county fair. By then she had begged her older brother for his headphones to listen to the first commercial radio plays broadcast live from Detroit. She also remembered the first time that she had gone to a talking movie.
And so it went. Mary Louise lived through the Great Depression and was grateful for finding a job on Saturdays in a department store while attending Western Michigan University. She made 17 cents an hour and bought a baked potato for lunch from the cafeteria that cost a nickel. ‘That’s what the Irish ate’, she smiled. To save trolley fare, she often walked 2½ miles to college lectures. She had no complaint. That was just the way things were.
Storm clouds were gathering as World War II approached. But there was something else ominous on the horizon. Sadness descended upon the Maher family when Mary Louise’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. There was no medical treatment for such an illness except kindness and patience. One can only imagine how difficult it was to bear witness to her father’s slow demise. I never got the whole story straight, but it seemed to me that my grandmother and Mother’s brothers encouraged her to enlist in the US Army Signal Corps. Yes, they were proud that she would be serving her country, but probably also wanted to distance her from the sadness at home. And so she was set in motion on train trips and a series of assignments that took her to military installations scattered throughout the Midwest and mid‑Atlantic states.
And finally, Mary Louise’s story began a new chapter when a handsome young second lieutenant in the U.S. Army walked, or rather, danced into her life. His name was Frank, and he was as exotic as they come to a girl from the Midwest. He was Italian-American from a place called Haverhill in Massachusetts in New England. I tried to cadge one detail at a time from Mother in each of our conversations over a cup of tea as her body, but not her mind grew frail. Not surprisingly, she was vague and evasive. She said that Dad was one of the soldiers from Fort Custer who went to Battle Creek for a USO-sponsored event. When asked why she had travelled to the event with her girl friends, she said matter-of-factly that, of course, they had to do their duty for the war effort. Before I could let out a guffaw, Mother added that Dad did not dance with her on that first night. She had caught someone else’s eye. However, there were other chances, and my father vied for her attention. Yet all too soon, my mother received an assignment to a Signal Corps installation in Chicago. And that would have been the end of a budding romance had my father not gotten up his courage to telephone my grandmother and ask where Mary Louise had gone. He himself was about to be assigned as commandant of a German prisoner-of-war camp in Chesterfield Missouri on the Mississippi River.
A long-distance courtship enhanced, rather than complicated, my parents’ eventual engagement. They certainly were adventurous. Mother would visit the internment camp with her girlfriends who were as fascinated as they were fearful of the handsome German farm boys drafted as the tide of war changed in favor of the Allies after the Normandy invasion. The young men worked in sugar beet and corn fields and were grateful to be thousands of miles away from the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge. My mother recalled a time that the Army jeep transporting the Signal Corps gals from the train station became mired in a muddy rut. My father whistled, and soon eight prisoners from a nearby work crew were summonsed to lift and push the vehicle along with its pretty passengers to dry ground. ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ I asked. Mother said, ‘Not Really. Your father told us’, “Do you really think the prisoners would harm the camp commander’s fiancé?”
Oh my goodness. They were so much in love. What striking newlyweds appear within the frame of a photo from their honeymoon trip along the New England coast: a shy, beautiful bride with a gardenia stylishly fixed in her hair and her self-assured, smiling husband with a pipe clenched tightly in his teeth. They married in the final months of WWII and moved east when Dad was discharged from the Army. However, life was not easy. Jobs were hard to come by, and young couples had to double up with relatives and friends to find shelter. Health problems often morphed into life or death situations. Within the short span of several years, three of my father’s sisters died of heart attacks or in child birth while in their early twenties and thirties. My father had to spend a lot of time on the road as he opened new territories for a collegiate jewelry company. This meant that my mother often had to fend alone for a growing family for several weeks at a time. She did not have time to feel sorry for herself. She recalled carrying twins into her eighth month of pregnancy with three children under the age of ten at home while also tending to three elderly couples in the neighborhood and chinchillas in the basement. Yes, you heard correctly. Chinchillas. But, that story can wait for another time.
‘Grammy’ was not just the heart and soul of a large family, but also served as a touchstone for her nephews, nieces and younger friends ‑‑ who by embracing her reached back emotionally and physically to their own parents and their own childhoods. This was not a role that she auditioned for or memorized lines by heart. With humility and the recognition that she had survived her husband, relatives and close friends, she gracefully and lovingly accepted this responsibility. She was a member of the Greatest Generation which stood with courage and conviction in the face of economic hardship and a world at war. The likes of them we shall not encounter again.
An Irish writer once described his mother’s life as a rosary of hours. And that is how I observed my mother’s faith-filled devotions and works of mercy in her daily life. Her namesake stood at the foot of a cross. Mother stood at the foot of ICU beds and showed up at hospices and nursing homes to console friends and families. Throughout these encounters, I never once heard her utter a word of bitterness or despair. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized, said that if we cannot do great things, we can at least do small things in great ways. And my mother was magnificent at this.
There is an Irish blessing. May you die on your pillow surrounded by your loved ones. And that wish was granted to Mary Louise Maher of the Mahers of Tipperary. She was encircled by her seven children and my wife and daughter. She took her last breath with rosary beads in her hand. Such was her devotion to the Marian chain link of prayer honoring her patron saint with fifty-three Ave Marias.
One final anecdote. It is about a piece of fine porcelain made in the town of Belleek in Northern Ireland. My wife and I undertook a trip to the war-torn province of Ulster at the height of “The Troubles’ as the Irish referred to them back in 1978. Mary dragged me past armed patrols of British soldiers and through graveyards choked with thistles in search of her family roots. As a souvenir, we bought a delicate Belleek creamer speckled with tiny shamrocks and presented it to my mother upon our safe return. She kept it in a place of honor until the time that she moved from her home of 62 years to a handicap-accessible house built on the back parcel of the family homestead. She was 92 years old at the time and was going through the process of winnowing her possessions. One afternoon Mother took the creamer down from a shelf in her china cabinet and handed it to me. ‘I won’t be needing this’, she said. When I put up a mild protest, she looked at me and said matter-of-factly in a low, but gentle, tone: ‘Besides I will be having tea with Our Lady’. I pretended not to hear what she said. Yet I heard her distinctly. It was one of those simple, graced moments that we do not wish to drain the charm from by calling attention to it.
Now I was given the name ‘Thomas’ at baptism. My father always called me ‘Thomas Aquinas’ when my ego needed bolstering. But I knew that I was not a doctor of the Church nor did I sport a miter or fancy vestments to corroborate such pretension. No, I always knew that my patron saint was the apostle who had been sent out to go grocery shopping after the Resurrection and missed seeing the risen Jesus. All my life I assumed that I was really a ‘doubting Thomas’. And, after receiving a law degree, I became a ‘beyond a reasonable doubting Thomas’. But, I have borne witness and can attest to what my mother spoke. I have no hesitation in believing that, somewhere in a quiet corner of Paradise, my mother is having tea with Our Lady.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living. An obituary and photos of his mother can be found at: http://www.eagletribune.com/obituaries/mary-louise-schiavoni/article_aab8dcc9-e27a-5897-bd1d-c12503d3591f.html