When I took my first breath she was there; when she took her last, it was just me and her, a moment of extraordinary privilege that will be counted as one of the greatest in my life. On July 25, 2015, at 3:30 a.m., her heart stopped beating after 34,786 days; mine will never beat the same.
In 1954, at age 33 and all by herself, she brought over to America, on the Queen Mary, her six sons. (Much later on, I moved down the Avenue from Lower Mills to Savin Hill, and I’m still not over it). When she told me about her journey, (a natural story storyteller, my mom), she always underscored her grief, as she had recently lost her own mother; I now understand what a crucial detail that was.
She was an artist and intellectual, but the only places where she was allowed to create were in kitchens (a book should be written on her trail-blazing culinary craft), at sewing machines, and with knitting needles. That was how it was for women of her generation – stuck in a box.
But there was never a box big enough for her progressive mind or her extraordinary wit. If she had been born into a world where marriage and motherhood were not the only options for women, no glass ceilings would have been safe (Well, maybe one: the Nobel Prize in mathematics). Her thinking belonged to a woman not of her time; she was always far ahead of the curve.
When my dad died 26 years ago, she got me through it. Now I mourn alone. I daily make my way around the canyon of my grief, resisting the desire to plummet into its echo for relief. But recalling our last 26 years together – the years when I got to know what was underneath this mother and wife as most of her duties were discharged – allows me not to.
She loved politics. When I spent every day with Linda Dorcena Forry several years back, which interrupted our mother-daughter routine, she was not happy. But after Linda hung out with her in her living room, she never complained again.
A Haitian woman who was working as a home health aide while studying for her RN at Boston College was my mom’s helper for a while and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me how much the student nurse was impressed with the Linda Dorcena Forry chip-clip magnets that adorned the refrigerator. So one day I put Sen. Forry on speaker phone and they spoke to each other in Haitian as my mother beamed proudly. Every time I look at those clips on my refrigerator, I smile.
She was hard to keep up with. You had to be on your game to engage her. She talked so much about Tony Soprano that a subscription to HBO had to be secured. She was doing in-depth script analysis after the first show, realizing immediately that it was ground-breaking “American” television. More subscriptions: The New York Times to discuss Frank Rich’s column, and when he moved to New York Magazine, another one. The line was drawn however at the New Republic, but she marked each article for me on her copy.
She quoted all her life from the major British authors, the Bard a particular favorite. She didn’t think much of American writers, except Flannery O’Connor. It was from my Mom’s dog-eared collection of short stories by O’Connor that I read aloud on that dark night in July that still owns my soul.
They won’t see me this Mother’s Day at Phillips for her turtles, or at Lambert’s for her mulch, which always seemed to break up in my car. I’d cut off my right arm to have to clean that mess this Sunday.
It seems ridiculous, I know, to grieve so for a woman who lived for 95 years, but I not only grieve for the loss of my mother and companion but I also grieve for the opportunities she was never allowed to take up because she was a woman. There wasn’t anything she did that wasn’t done well.
She was a trailblazer and a super-hero to me. Yes, she had her kryptonite, but don’t we all?
Of all the extracurricular things I have spent time doing, her favorite was what I wrote for this newspaper. I mentioned to her once that I didn’t have the appropriate amount of time to dedicate to writing a column every week. She raised her eyebrow in that way she did, but said not a word, and, of course, I was back at my keyboard.
The greatest blessing in my life – “Of myself, I am nothing” – is that I am Catherine O’Connor O’Neill’s eighth child.
This one’s for you, Mom.