Born on December 8, 1919, she would have been ninety-six years old today; my Irish, Catholic mother named Mary Josephine Meehan.
She died thirteen years ago, twenty-four years after living with, and beating breast cancer. She died just three months after our youngest son Samuel, came home from Kazakhstan.
She was tough, and prided herself on it. She didn’t like “sissies,” and raised us to be tough. Life is hard and she wanted us to grow up to take care of ourselves. She grew up across the tracks from Frank Sinatra and told us he was a sissy – a mama’s boy who wouldn’t even hang off of the back of the trolly’s when he was roller skating. She never listed to him sing. “Turn that sissy off.”
She spent most of her childhood in a tenement flat at 311 Ninth St. in Jersey City, NJ. There were cockroaches inside and rats in the outhouse. She talked about stamping her feet to keep the rats away when she sat on the “John.” Born to poor Irish Catholic immigrants, the depression and poverty wasn’t kind to her. Her name Mary means “bitter” and she told me to never name a child Mary; it’s a “bad-luck name.”
Mary J. Meehan age 8 (My mother)
I was taught to never put my shoes on the table or I’d have bad luck… never raise my hand to strike my mother, or when I die my hand will stick up out of the grave… never bring a sparrow into the house...never walk backwards down a staircase or Satan will be waiting at the bottom… and never stick my tongue out a her or my tongue would fall off. I never, ever thought about striking my mother, I never stuck my tongue out at her – ever – even when she wasn’t looking.
It was vitally important stuff to know. Life or death.
She spoke highly of her mother, my grandmother who worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, at Dix’s Pencil Company, to support her family; she despised her father who spent his days drinking away the cash my grandmother earned. Her mother had married a widower with two children and together they had four more. My mother said her mother had gotten pregnant to “the bum,” trapped, and forced to wed. That piece of information about her mother, she spoke with disgust, “How could she have gotten pregnant by that bum.” My mother ran to meet my grandmother as a child, to be the first to get the warm rolls she would bring home for dinner, often not having enough to feed the whole family. Who ever met her first and helped her carry the bags, won.
I have heard some others speak well of my grandfather, who died before I was born, but my mother went to her grave despising him – bitterly. (I think – of course – no one can know the intents of the heart in those last moments. ) She told me about her sister that he tried to throw out at window when she born; he wanted a son and despised “another split tail.” She spoke about his drunkenness, his filth, her endless cleaning of the apartment. She talked about coffee in her bottle because it was cheaper than milk in the 1920’s, and revealed that her father had dropped his used condoms into the toy box that was kept under her parents bed. (Her mother never set foot in the Catholic church again because of the guilt – birth control was sin.) Sex was disgusting she said, and she only “did it” for children. My heart breaks when I think of the reasons she had for so much brokenness towards any, and all aspects of relationships.
Mary (Cox) Meehan (my grandmother, age 4)
Her bitterness towards men carried over into her marriage and towards all men. The rejection my mother held ran deep and was evident in all her familial relationships, though two of my aunts were a regular part of our holiday gatherings. Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas dinners were a trip, like a Saturday night live skit in living color…
SNL Thanksgiving Miracle (Sums up what dinner would be today if any relatives were yet living.)
At the encouragement of the Parish priest my mother married right out of high school. She was a beautiful woman. Father Mac told her Joe Casey was a good man, and she needed to get out of her poverty ridden circumstances to have a better life. I imagine her care and concern for her mother may have kept her from finding her own way. She didn’t marry for love, and her Irish Catholic husband also drank. Joe was a good guy I was told, a “happy drunk,” well liked by everyone, and kind to all. Together they had one child, my sister. When he was drafted to fight during WWII, my mother divorced him which caused her excommunication from the church. She died having never set foot in the Catholic church again, except for weddings or funerals. She was disgusted by the annulments that can be purchased today. She never felt worthy of the church again, yet never stopped affirming to us, “I was born a Catholic, and I will die a Catholic.” She liked the Mass better when it was said in Latin.
She met my father at a picnic. He was handsome, well dressed, and hard-working. He was a “smooth talker” a salesman by trade, who would become very successful later in life. He was also divorced. I didn’t know anything about my mother’s or my father’s past marriage until I was in my twenties. Divorce was shameful and it was well hidden in my childhood. My sister grew up forced to pretend she my fathers biological child with all the implication that caused to a child. I just believed she had a couple of extra names due to her Catholic communion and confirmation.
Together, my parents had three children, two boys and me. I am the youngest. I was my father’s pet. Their marriage was a mess – wrought with infidelity and trust issues caused by my father, constant yelling, complaint, and discontent from my mother – But this post is to honor her – not to speak about the pain of her life that carried over into how she raised us. She did the best she knew how with a terribly traumatic past, an unfaithful husband, and limited skills or resources.
She worked hard her whole life to keep a clean house, immaculate clothing for all of us, and home-cooked meals. She wanted us to have everything – a life far removed from the oppressive poverty she had known. When I was little she bought me clothes I despised, always wanting to have a china doll of apparent affluence to parade around, in hopes of filling the painful void in her soul. The expenditures caused many battles, even though my frugal father could afford it. She didn’t know how to express love in any other way – neither by verbal communication or a show of affection. It was quite the opposite.
The day before she died I received the first verbal response to my declarations of love for her. Usually an “I love you,” was met with “Yeah, yeah, yeah, actions speak louder than words. ” On the day before she died, the words I had always hoped to hear were spoken weakly, but softly, kindly, from her death-bed, exposing a lifetime of love that was buried beneath pillars of pain, “I love you Mom.” “I love you too.” I ran from the room and wept like a baby. I can’t write it, without reliving the moment.
She went home to the Jesus she had met and hidden from, us only a few years before. She would never let me know that she embraced the same God I did – except to say, “Yeah, yeah, I believe all too.” I was raised that a son will take care of His mother so Mary can get anything she wants from Jesus.
She was never able to grasp that the man-God, Jesus, could love her, but I know she understood He was her Savior. After she died I found a bible we had given to her – highlighted, worn, sinners prayers written in a shaky hand, copied down from Billy Graham, evidence of her softened heart. Though she repeatedly stated we were making a mistake in adopting a little boy (with much cruder language and notions – she said we should adopt a girl) her response to meeting him, just once before she died, “He’s cute, God bless him” left me shaking my head in awe.
Today on her birthday, I want to sit down with her and drink our Irish Breakfast tea together. I want to look her in the eyes and reflect God’s love from a place of total acceptance for who she is. When I tell her that I am getting my Masters of Divinity, I want to hear her say, “What the hell are you doing that for? Get a job that pays. Become a nurse. You need your head examined, you are going to die broke and I won’t be around to help you.” I would inwardly smile, knowing she is being “tough” and making me “tough,” but if anyone else dare say I was pursuing foolish ideas, she would quickly quiet them as well with a, “Shut the hell up. You should do so well raising eight hard-working kids and twelve grand-kids. None of them are in jail or on drugs. And she homeschools them all too!”
I want to hear her challenge my theological views against what I used to hold to, “I thought women couldn’t be pastors?” “What the hell do you have a tattoo for?” “You change your ideas like you change your underwear.” “I believe in the old ways.”
I know at times she would exhaust me, and I long for one more time to be exhausted; now, as a mature, wise, older woman, who would no longer hear her crass language or pain driven remarks. I see a broken woman who desperately wanted to know she was accepted, loved, and forgiven.
I never wanted to be like her – anything like her – but that nature and nurture heritage followed me in so many ways. Part of it has made me who I am. I am a survivor. She made me that way. She taught me you never give up, and you never give in. You fight for what you want, what you earn, what you believe in, and what you deserve. She was a feminist before the time of feminism, and without understanding what that meant, even as she mocked Gloria Steinem she stood for what it meant. She sent money to the poor and needy and spoke with compassion about oppressed women and children. The stranger and orphan loved her. I would like to hear her tell me how foolish I am to go to Haiti, the Philippines, Nepal and other places, and that I should stay home where I belong, knowing that underneath it all she would be of the woman I have become.
The defining difference between us as older women, is that I embrace how great God’s unconditional love for me is, how His grace and forgiveness is the sum total, and I can live out my life free of bitterness, anger, or rejection. I can love myself and others as God does – the all-encompassing commandment of law and grace. I know the peace that she never gained in this world, but that she has embraced in eternity.
I love you Mom. I know you are happy now and all of the things I wrote, I can picture you are probably rolling your eyes – but you roll them from a place of total love, acceptance, and tear-free abandonment.
I miss you Mom. You were one hell of a woman. Save me a place in the Kingdom and fist bump Jesus for me. My next tattoo will be in your honor.
(I apologize if anyone is offended by language, but that is exactly how my mother spoke, and I loved her for her she was at. If you are offended, I would challenge you to think about how much you can embrace others who speak far worse, do far worse, and needs so much more the grace and love of God reflected by us.)