Today is Mother’s Day and to celebrate I thought I might share a beautiful eulogy written in memory of an amazing Irish American mother.
She was not a celebrity. She was not a millionairess. She was not even remotely famous. But she was a wonderful mother who shared her values and beliefs with her family so that they could stand apart from the crowd because of their integrity, their strength of character, and their acts of kindness.
Today I am honored to share a thoughtful and inspiring eulogy for a remarkable Irish American Mom, sent to me by her son ….
Eulogy For An Irish American Mother:
Catherine Patricia Frain O’Brien!
Patt with 2 Ts!
Mom was known for her sayings. Like most mothers.
But for Mom, they weren’t just platitudes, or old wives’ tales, or expressions that one rattles off robotically.
Mom MEANT her sayings. She LIVED them. So we, her children, lived them too, like it or not.
“She’s more to be pitied than laughed at.”
“Pretty is as pretty does.”
“Look it up.”
“You could say the rosary.”
“Nobody’s lookin’ at you.”
Mom grew up in a big family – 5 daughters and one son – in the Bronx. Her parents, Catherine Casey and Martin Frain, – just like Dad’s parents, Helen Craig and Lawrence O’Brien – came from Ireland, each on their own, part of the enormous diaspora that saw strong, hard-working, pragmatic – yet ever optimistic – Irish leave their beloved Ireland to come to America, for a better life.
The famine people, still.
What Mom took from her family – what she loved from what SHE came from – she sought out in a partner when she married Howard O’Brien. A true match, her true love, an equal.
They were a special couple, they were partners in life, they had each other’s back at all times. They always presented each other in the best possible light. They loved and were loved. They even had a special code, 8-8-8. Because there are 8 letters in “I love you.”
Every phone call between them started and ended with 8-8-8. Not just 8. 8-8-8. It was as ubiquitous as good morning and good night. 8-8-8. love you, I love you, I love you.
Passing On Her Beliefs:
Mom knew what mattered in life, and she passed her beliefs on to us.
“Family is the only thing that really matters.”
“Education is everything.”
“It’s who you are, not what you have that counts.”
“Never go back. No regrets. Don’t look back.”
Mom believed that things could always get better. And if they didn’t, you tried again. Mom certainly lived through some challenges, but she was never defined by those challenges.
As a young mother, she had to move far from her family, her support system. And she was on her own many many days – and nights – as Dad traveled for work, often gone for days on end, and Mom with 4 young children. She didn’t even drive. So we walked everywhere, and Mom made walking an adventure.
Her world was turned completely upside down when Dad almost died from a stroke at age 40, only to discover he had a serious illness and faced a long road to recovery, as he had to learn to walk, talk and even eat again. But Mom didn’t just carry the burden during those days – she did it in a way where we didn’t even know there WAS a burden. No income? No paycheck? We had no idea.
Mom faced those challenges the way she faced all troubles – she found silver linings, she found the bright side, she faced all of it with optimism and humor. She loved laughter and fun – and she didn’t shy away from a bit of goofiness.
One Christmas when we were teens we were gathered in the front living room, in pajamas, with cups of tea, waiting to begin the glory that was an O’Brien Christmas. All of a sudden, there were loud thumps on the snowy roof, the stomping on the front porch, and in walked Santa Claus.
Ho-ho-ho and a red velvet Santa suit with huge snowy white beard and a bag slung over his back. We’d never had such a bizarre interloper and we were as delighted as we were baffled.
It was our MOTHER. Mom. In a Santa suit. That she’d ‘borrowed’ from the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce.
Life Lessons And Sayings:
“Look it up.” That was Mom’s answer any time you asked what a word meant, who invented something, what year the atrocity-committing Huns invaded Rome.
Look it up. Go to the dictionary – that’s what it’s there for – open an encyclopedia and find out for yourself. That way, you’ll remember.
“If I just tell you, you won’t learn it for yourself.”
Mom loved learning, and knowing things. She could rattle off all 50 states and capitals. For a few years after Dad died we all – all of us – went to French-speaking Toronto for summer vacations together. We rented cabins, we fished, we played charades and Monopoly and Mille Bourne. We had wonderful meals together, and we began to heal, together.
But that wasn’t enough – oh no. Not for Mom. We also had homework. Oh yes. Homework. One year everyone had to learn the Gettysburg Address. Another year it was the Canadian national anthem. You’d see a sibling, niece, nephew – heading off in a rowboat for a few hours of rest and relaxation on the lake – and with the bait and the tackle were their Gettysburg flash cards.
You’d settle into a corner with a book, and hear……… ……..we cannot consecrate……we cannot dedicate…… No, aaargh. We cannot dedicate — we can not CONSECRATE — we can not hallow….”
When we were ready, one by one, Mom would quiz us. You’d have to schedule your 5 mins, sing the Canadian national anthem CORRECTLY. And you’d get $1. And her respect, which was far more dear than money.
Devotion To Our Lady:
“You could say the rosary.”
This was Mom’s response to any child who toyed with the sin of boredom. “I’m BORED. There’s NOTHING to DO.”
“You could say the rosary.” That left 2 goals achieved – one reflected Mom’s lifelong devotion to Mary, and belief in the power of the rosary. The second was highly effective at getting her children to use their GOD-GIVEN imagination and come up with something TO DO.
Mom was truly devoted; she felt a strong personal connection to Mary. Let’s face it; you don’t name your daughter Dolores without meaning it. Dolores. After the seven dolors of Mary. Simeon’s prophecy. The flight into Egypt. Jesus lost in the temple.
Every Sept, which was the month honoring The Seven Dolors of Mary, we would say the seven dolors, or a prayer to Mary, after grace. Before dinner. Before current events. Likewise, in May we would again honor Mary with a hymn before dinner. Grace, hymn to Mary, dinner. With a discussion of current events.
In August, we honored the Assumption with a prayer after grace. Or said the glorious mysteries.
Dinner Time Is Family Time:
We actually knew people in town who weren’t allowed to speak during dinner. A rule truly horrific and wrong to our mother. And I’m sure there were some who spent their dinners discussing school, or who did what to whom, or saying mean things about other people. Not Mom’s dinner table.
We said our thanks for all that we were blessed with. We honored those closest to God. We discussed the greater world, and what political or economic events were shaping it, and we forged our bonds as a family which have never failed any of us – bonds that have only expanded over the years to include those who joined our treasured family – the spouses Paulette, Whit, Joe, David. And the next generation. Mom’s beloved, adored grandchildren. Laura Helen, Martin, Brendan, Kevin, Brian, Audrey angel girl, Beth. And the newest spouses, Stacy and Kristen.
“Pretty is as pretty does.”
Mom, at her core, as much as any other of her traits, Mom was blessed with the grace of empathy. Now, Mom wasn’t against criticism per se. We were welcome to knock down the powerful, the hypocrites, the mean.
Mom wasn’t impressed by much of anything. She certainly wasn’t impressed by money – real money meant greed, and it usually meant you had to be mean to someone to get it.
She wasn’t impressed by power – power required even worse behavior than what it took to get rich. So, if someone was praised or elevated because of what they could buy, or what they could get other people to do with their power, she could bring out a sneer that let you know EXACTLY how low your character had sunk to be taken in, IMPRESSED, by things in life that meant nothing.
A fancy house? Sneer. Are they happy? Was someone beautiful? Only if they had inner kindness, inner beauty, empathy for those not born with the same physical beauty. Otherwise, what was the point? As Mom always said, pretty is as pretty does. There’s nothing uglier than meanness. Be nice.
Be, as Mom used to say – be “knee-jerk nice.”
Make your first response nice – you can always take it back if it was a mistake. But you can’t take back meanness.
And we all know…………
“She’s more to be pitied than laughed at.”
Mom decided that her young daughter named Dolores – me – Mom decided that I had a special bond to two particular people in our small town. One was my 3rd grade teacher, named Dolores, who was – divorced. This was trouble. A divorced Catholic, having the temerity to try to remain as a teacher in a Catholic school?
Dolores faced a hard, uphill battle against a group of sanctimonious mothers in town trying to get her removed as a teacher. Dolores had to endure a steady round of calls for her to be thrown out of the school.
And my obligation – according to my mother – was to show her kindness. I had to bring her small gifts, a Holy card, a suggested prayer – copied from a book of prayers under duress – a small statue of Mary of the seven Dolors that we bought at the shrine. (I thought it was for ME when we bought it.)
I had to bring these little tokens into school, muster up the courage to approach her, and – according to Mom – share in our co-devotion to the seven dolors. And Dolores my teacher didn’t make it easy – she was a stern, cold woman. She was a TEACHER. And I was in the 3rd grade – I had my own problems. One of which was that I didn’t want to stick out even further than I already did with the general not-fitting-in-ness that all O’Briens are born with.
But we made it through the entire school year – Dolores and I. Before she got the message and left to teach in a public school – for Mom, a true loss for our Catholic community.
The other Dolores in town was far worse. The other Dolores was the town victim. She was a sad woman who suffered from many serious physical handicaps, the result of which gave her an understandably mean disposition.
Dolores was the sport of pretty much every bully in town. These bullies, along with their faithful toadies and hangers-on took every opportunity to cruelly torment this woman. They’d ring the doorbell of her tiny house, wait for her to come to the door and yell at her. They’d grab her cane and watch her fall. If they came upon her struggling to walk home from the grocery store they’d grab her bag out of her hand, knowing she could do nothing in return. If she was simply walking home from church they’d throw things at her.
Where others saw someone to mock and laugh at, Mom saw a corporal work of mercy. For me. My arguments that “NOBODY LIKES HER!” Or, “SHE’S MEAN.” Or, at a badly-played low point – “I’LL NEVER BE POPULAR IF I’M SEEN BEING NICE TO HER!” were met with …..
“Bake a cake and bring it to her house.”
“Here’s 50 cents. Ride your bike to the
White House diner and bring Dolores a cheeseburger.
It’s pouring rain and she can’t get out.”
“I called Dolores and offered you up to go
to the store with her and carry home her groceries.”
“When you’re done shoveling,
go to Dolores’ house and shovel her sidewalk.”
Oh the humiliation. Oh the agony of having other kids see you being nice to someone so low. Mom’s response to that was what she always said when we tried to selfishly make ourselves the center of our own universe.
“Nobody’s looking at you.”
Oh the shame of sharing a name with Dolores. But, oh the words of my mother in my ear – make sure she knows your name is Dolores. Not just Lori. Share a devotion with her to the seven dolors. Bring her a holy card.
“She doesn’t care, Mom. She’s mean.”
“No, she’s not. And even if SHE is – you’re not.”
These – and other – sayings were as much a part of Mom as her quick mind and wit, her cunning chess game, her love of embroidery, her incredibly bad singing voice, the ballet costumes she sewed by hand – row after row of tulle netting – and the wonderful meals we shared amidst the everyday or the Sunday roasts and brilliant conversation and debate that Sundays at the O’Briens were – the likes of which we’ll never see again.
What Mom didn’t give us has proven to be as valuable as what she gave us.
She didn’t give her children guilt.
She didn’t give us bitterness, or resentment, or anger.
She didn’t give us regret.
I look back on our legacy of who we are as Mom’s children – her pride and joy. (Btw, instead of our school photos Mom used to carry a photo of a bottle of Pride furniture polish and a bottle of Joy dishwashing detergent. Just so she could show people a picture of her pride and joy.)
As for our legacy, it was important to Mom for us to stand out. To be known – to stand apart from the crowd for our integrity, our strength of character, our acts of kindness.
I don’t know that we’ve lived up to Mom’s very high expectations – but she knows we all listened to her. She knows we loved her unceasingly, without a day or moment of bitterness. With no regrets. I think of the two Dolores’s that Mom made me be kind to. I thank God; I thank MOM for the gift of no regret.
Were there days for them when amidst the lowness, the meanness that children and human nature can impose on those struggling with a truly hard life, that Mom’s forced kindness brightened a day? Took an edge off the cruelty? Demonstrated empathy?
Oh yes. Mom saw things. She saw meanness that could stop. She saw dolors and sorrow that could be lessened. But, unlike others, she acted.
Mom lived her life that way, every day, and because of her choices, her lessons, her empathy, she gave all of us so very much to be proud of, to be thankful for. Rest in peace, Mom. May perpetual light shine upon you. And from all of us, here in person or in spirit – 8-8-8. Dolores (Lori) O’Brien Miller 02/07/11
Thank You To The O’Brien Family:
I am indebted to the O’Brien family for sharing their memories of their mom with us today. Patt with 2 T’s’ inspiring legacy and life lessons are evidence of her tenacity and inner strength. Full of Irish wit and wisdom these old Irish sayings, and turns of phrase, are still valid to this very day.
And so as we celebrate our mothers on this special day, let us be thankful for the Irish and Irish American mothers who have set us on life’s path inspired and guided by their words of wisdom, their acts of kindness and their incredible insight.
Thank you to all the Irish American Moms past and present who have guided us in good times and in bad.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
If you enjoyed this guest post, here are some other installments you might enjoy ….