May the Road Rise Up To Meet You

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This weekend there will be grand St. Patrick Day celebrations in Boston, New York City, Chicago,  New Orleans and all across the United States. There will be many a river died green and folks will don their emerald colored clothing lest they be pinched. Lots of corned beef and cabbage will be the dish of the day along with beer and soda bread. It’s a fun occasion and everybody gets into the act even if they don’t have an Irish bone in their bodies.

It was not until a few years back that I discovered that I am a descendant of the real article. My great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a true Irish name if ever there was one. I know little more than that she existed, married my great grandfather James Mack, had a baby boy that she named William, and died only a few days after giving birth. That baby boy was my paternal grandfather, a man who like me would often think of his mother and wish that he had known her. She is a kind of mystery in that she doesn’t show up on census records or death certificates of the time. Nobody knows for certain why she died, but my grandfather would never forget her, one day naming his daughter “Marion” in her honor.

I’ve searched record after record hoping to know her better. A general discussion of her name mentions that Roarks are probably descendants of a Viking  named Ruaric who found his way to the Emerald Isle and stayed to build a life and a legacy in a territory known as Breffny, now Cavan and West Leitrim located in Northeastern Ireland. The Roark family was at one time quite powerful in Ireland and their motto was “I govern by serving.” Over time famine and poverty drove many of them to seek new possibilities in places like the United States. I suppose that I will never really know how Marion got here and where she met James Mack. Somehow though I suspect that through her DNA her spirit and maybe even her physical characteristics live on in members of our family.

It makes me sad to know that she died before ever getting to know her son. I think that she would have been quite proud of the man that he ultimately became. She might have enjoyed knowing that she had a granddaughter and a grandson. Surely my father with his intellect and impish sense of humor would have brought her the same kind of joy that I derive from my own grandchildren. I wonder if it is possible that the twinkle in my youngest grandson William’s eyes is part of his Irish heritage. Is the quick wit of my brother Patrick right in keeping with Marion’s ethnicity? Surely he has the perfect name for the great grandson of an Irish lass, as do his own sons Ryan and Shawn.

When I gave birth to my first daughter I had a long labor of over eighteen hours that was complicated by the fact that my baby weighed more than nine pounds and was determined to arrive in a breech position. My doctors eventually got her facing in the right direction, but he told me that in the days of yore I might not have made it. When the same thing happened with my second child he asked if I knew of anyone in my family who had experienced a similar situation. I never thought of my great grandmother Marion but now I wonder if her labor and been similar to mine. Without a hospital, nurses, and a highly trained doctor the delivery may have been so difficult as to render her weak and unable to rebound.

I try not to get too sad thinking about Great Grandmother Marion. Instead I prefer to celebrate the ancestry that she gave me. I like to think of how she must have loved her baby boy William if only for a very short time. I suspect that her life was always a bit difficult but she had found some joy with James and hope for the future with William. Her son was a very handsome and articulate man, a storyteller and gifted craftsman. Did some of those traits come from her?

Now I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a new feeling that I am very much entitled to this annual fest by birth right. This year I have bangers from Ireland that I will try along with some cabbage and potatoes. I may make a trip to Central Market for some Irish soda bread like my dear friend Marita Doyle used to bake. She would get a kick out of knowing that the two of us now share a link to Ireland because she was an Irish girl from Chicago through and through.

In a touch of irony my grandfather William ended up being raised by his grandmother Sarah Reynolds. I find that interesting because when I was teaching at a local Catholic school I worked with a fine woman named Therese Reynolds who spoke with a lovely  brogue and had the same kind of humor that runs from my grandfather down to my youngest grandson. Like my grandfather she was a teller of tales that were filled with blarney and fun. She once gave me a beautiful copy of the Irish Blessing that hangs in the entryway to my home. I’ve always been taken by it’s words and now I know that it is part of my heritage. So on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day I pray:

May the roads rise to meet you,

May the winds be always at your back,

May sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

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My Aging Thoughts

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I’ve generally felt like someone who keeps up with the world, a person who is ‘woke” as the new “with-it-ness” is called. I try not to become an old grouchy “fuddyduddy” who is out of touch. I Listen to popular music and actually enjoy most of it. I watch the movies and television programs that are trending. I am familiar with the latest fads. Of late, however, I feel myself drifting into the valley of those who are falling behind the times. Like Tevye in The Fiddler On the Roof  I have managed to adapt to the new ways again and again but sometimes I begin to think, “there  is no other  hand.” There is a definite line over which I do not wish to cross, and most recently I feel closer and closer to reaching that point.

I am a observant person. I have the ability to read people, to understand how they are feeling, to notice when they are having difficulties. This talent allowed me to bring an extra level of compassion to my students and even the teachers with whom I worked. I was often able to see problems before they became apparent to everyone else. I used this ability in dealing with my mother’s mental illness as well. I watched her carefully and did my best to provide her with the care that she needed before her difficulties became dangerous.

I sometimes wonder if I developed this skill from having a grandmother who spoke no English. The only way that she and I were able to communicate was through body language and facial expressions. I watched her carefully to determine how I needed to react. Because of this I began to notice more and more about the people around me. I had a knack for understanding.

It’s difficult for anyone not to notice how divided we have become as a nation. There are ever more frequent attempts to push us into tribes, different groups that may or may not feel comfortable. We are made to feel as though our very natures are dependent on the history of our ancestry. It is as though we are somehow defined by the people who came before us rather than by the content of our own personal character. We are instantly judged by the color of our skin, the location in which we live, the amount of education that we have, the nature of our work. Often these assessments are based on stereotypes that have little or nothing to do with who we really are. Among them is the idea of white privilege, a characteristic of which I am supposed to be guilty, but can’t truly accept given the reality of my background.

I am the product of a single parent home given that my father died when I was only eight. My mother was a first generation American citizen, the child of immigrants from a part of eastern Europe in which the people were thought to be somehow inferior. She and her siblings were often taunted by neighbors because they had parents who seemed strange with their foreign ways. Because of my economic situation I had few opportunities and no contacts for advancement. My brothers worked at a road side vegetable stand for seventy five cents an hour. If they dropped a watermelon they had to pay for it. Sometimes they took home less money that they might have earned because their boss claimed that they had made mistakes.

In spite of our condition my brothers and I worked hard. Our mother never complained about her lot in life and taught us not to do so either. We held our heads high and felt thankful for the opportunities in our country even though we sometimes found blockades in our paths. We persisted even in the face of barriers because our family believed that this was the greatest place on earth to live even with all of its flaws. Of late I hear so much belittling of not only the country itself, but also different factions of the population. We are being urged on both the far right and the far left to fight with each other and to hang our heads in shame at the very thought of being Americans.

I recently saw an article deriding virtually all older white males. Since I happen to be married to one of those types and friends with a number of them, I found the very thought of making sweeping statements about a particular facet of our society to be disgusting. I see it as the power play that it is. I understand that there are indeed groups who want us to turn on one another just as there have always been. There is nothing new about getting us to hate. It’s been de rigor for centuries. It is the reason that my grandparents moved to this country from Austria Hungary. It is a tactic that is as old as the story of Jesus being executed for His beliefs. Sadly we are falling for it in droves, and that makes me feel quite worried for the health of our country, for I believe that it is only when we work together that we are strong.

I intend to keep speaking out in favor of respecting all good people and rejecting those who would ask us to condemn entire groups without thought. We cannot become a nation of sects, groups, nationalities, races that are unwilling to trust one another. We have to face the reality that there is good and bad everywhere and we need to be discerning enough to combat evil without thoughtless condemnation. Instead we should be taking the time to better know and understand even those whose ways seem different and confusing. I fear that if we don’t the battles that we see will only escalate.

I’m seventy years old and greatly saddened that I may have to spend the next ten, twenty, or thirty years that I have left watching my country turn on itself. I have grown weary of watching good people demonized by persons with selfish intent. The noise is overwhelming even to my aging ears that don’t hear quite as well as they once did, but it tells me that we must be very careful. I suspect that the reality is that most of us feel this way.   

Our Angel

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My youngest daughter had little idea how difficult it would become for her to have children. The women in our family tended to be hardy souls who were models of the old frontier stock who laid down next to a covered wagon to birth a child and then continued on the journey. I had joked with both of my girls to be careful because we seemed to have DNA that led to pregnancy if we did little more than glance sideways at a man. I came from a family of women who without birth control might have mothered ten or more children. It seemed inevitable that having children would be one of the certainties of my girls’ realities.

When boasting about our seemingly genetic fertility I didn’t take all of the members of our family tree into account. I knew little or nothing about my paternal great grandmother who died from childbirth. I didn’t really consider the large number of only children in my husband’s family. Because having a successful pregnancy had been a walk in the park for me I never thought that either of my children would find the task to be daunting, but I was wrong. 

Just a few months before my youngest had been married for a year, she announced that she was pregnant. There were few visible signs of the child growing inside of her, but as with all women she had felt the subtle changes in her body, and a doctor had confirmed her suspicions to her utter glee. Her celebrating ended unexpectedly and abruptly when she miscarried shortly after she had so happily told us of her joy.

I had never had such an experience and I fumbled to comfort her in a meaningful way. It was my dear friend, Pat, who came to the rescue. She had been in my daughter’s shoes, and she knew exactly what to say to her. She wrote a long letter of support to my girl, accompanied by a care package filled with goodies that were meant to bring succor and understanding. A bond grew between those two women that only mothers of little angels who don’t quite make it into this world ever truly understand. I was so grateful for the love and counseling that Pat so willingly gave to my own child. I knew that my girls was hurting beyond my capacity to speak the words that she needed.

Sadly my daughter’s saga was to be filled with one disappointment after another. She learned soon enough that getting pregnant and keeping that condition was almost impossible for her. One terrible loss after another occurred until she was seeking help in a fertility clinic in Chicago. The doctor was renowned for his ability to help women to bear children, but he was honest about my daughter’s chances and they were not particularly good.

Over time she endured hormone shots, and multiple treatments that threw her body into a continuous cycle of hope and loss. Finally she and her husband and her physician agreed to try in vitro fertilization. It was risky and there were no guarantees, but nothing else had come even close to working so she endured yet another treatment. Not long after, on a cold February day she got the news that she was pregnant with two children. The tulip bulbs that her husband had given her for Valentine’s day had bloomed at that very moment with two perfect flowers. She took that as a sign that the spirit of her first angel baby was reaching out to her, assuring her that this time things would be okay.

It was a difficult pregnancy, made worse by the worry that stalked her. She and her husband had worked so hard to get to this point, and they prayed as each month passed that their babies would make it to become healthy enough to enter the world. It seemed as though their entreaties had been answered until my girl went into early labor, so early that the probability of her children having grievous health problems was almost certain.

My daughter lay in the hospital hearing dire predictions from her doctors. Her children might be born without the ability to breathe properly. They might endure brain damage, become blind. It was a terrifying time but in a miraculous moment that not even the doctors were able to explain her labor suddenly stopped. She spent the remaining many weeks on full bed rest emotionally willing her children to grow healthy and strong. They would ultimately be premature and tiny at their births, but they were mostly healthy in spite of some lingering problems. Today those same babies are in high school. They are brilliant and beautiful and loving. They have a little brother who surprised everyone as a miracle who wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

My daughter still speaks of her four children. She knows that there is a baby in heaven watching over her, a child who may have even been the angel who guarded her through all of those difficult times. Now that little one has been joined by Pat, the woman who gave her the courage to soldier through her difficult journey toward motherhood. My baby girl who is fully a woman and devoted mother herself knows how blessed she has been, and she understands in the deepest way the women who like her lose the little children that they so much want to bring into the world.

I never before knew that there is actually a day in October set aside to remember all of those tiny ones who were so wanted and loved by their mothers, but were not quite able to make it into our lives. Somehow it seems fitting that my sweet daughter’s twins were born in October. I find myself believing that I have had eight grandchildren, not seven, and one of them is truly our angel who has gone ahead of us into heaven.

Finally Learning Who I Am

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If you’ve followed my blogs even  intermittently you know that I have researched my paternal grandfather for many years all to no avail. I literally cannot find records of him until 1930, even though he was born in 1879. I’ve looked for his father and again there is no sign of him ever providing data for  a census or a document certifying his death certifying his death. Grandpa’s mother is even more of a phantom because she died in childbirth when she was evidently quite young.  My grandfather was supposedly raised by a grandmother, and I have found women with the same name as hers but none of them fit the profile that Grandpa gave me. I’ve had the best luck learning about the man who eventually became my grandfather’s guardian, but I cannot find a familial connection between him and my Grandpa. I once wrote to some of John Little’s descendants and none of them had ever heard about him being a guardian for a young orphan. So there it has stood and my frustrations just grow and grow, but I think that I may have contrived a plan that will unlock the mystery of my heritage. I’m convinced that I will receive a treasure trove of information if I have the courage to set the idea in motion.

So, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring for the presidency in 2020. I’ll be running as an independent because I don’t think either party will have me, and I’m not so sure that I would have them. I disagree with both on far too many issues, so mine will be a lone wolf attempt at winning the highest office in the land. I’ll begin by being open about who I know that I am, and then I’ll let the journalists and politicians do the work of uncovering my past to provide a more complete picture. I suspect that I will learn a great deal that I have never known, and since it really doesn’t matter whether I win the office or not, I’ll at least get the information that has so far eluded me.

I like to think of myself as being like honest Abe. In fact in one of those little quizzes that show up on Facebook I learned that I am most like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. I don’t have anything that I want to hide, so I will provide an outline of what I know to be true.

I joined the Students for a Democratic Society when I was at the University of Houston. There is a photo of me front and center in one of the school yearbooks. It was some time later that I learned what a radical organization SDS actually was. My sole purpose back then was to speak out against a war that I felt was steadily going in the wrong direction. Of course, nobody is going to believe in my innocence when I run for office but it will be worth the brouhaha just to find out about Grandpa. I’ll be branded as a radical, but that’s okay since I know that I’m a rather boring sort and always have been.

Both my maternal grandmother and my mother suffered from mental illnesses so I suppose that someone will decide that my quirks make me appear to be a bit flaky in my own right. I’ll own the fact that I can sometimes be a bit cray cray, but so far I’ve made it without an official diagnosis. I probably could have done a better job of finding help for my mom, but in the long run I feel comfortable in asserting that I did my best.

With all of my years in education there is surely someone who disliked me who will step forward with assertions that may shock me. If I wronged anyone I am greatly sorry. Forty years of working with children can be quite stressful, and I suppose that I may have uttered my frustrations a time or two. I know that when I was in charge of the educational program at one of my churches I, along with my co-director, was accused of being an agent of the devil because I was not a nun. That may eliminate a few potential voters along the way, but surely my own story is so mundane that someone will decide to reach far back into my history to find some obnoxious ancestor to darken my reputation. I’m in the hopes that when they do they will finally solve the mystery of my grandfather. I am tired of wondering if he simply sprang up in a cabbage patch.

He admitted that his father was a n’er do well, so I won’t be too surprised about what will turn up in that regard. I know that my great grandfather was a heavy drinker who preferred good old Virginia moonshine, according the Grandpa’s recollection. My grandfather himself even went through a period of inordinate imbibing until he became disgusted and decided to become a tee totaler. I’ve never cared much for anything more than a glass of wine or a Margarita, so my reputation should remain intact in that regard.

The funny thing is that I have more records about my grandparents who travelled to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I do about my Grandpa Little. I know what boats they came on, what port they arrive in, and even who their parents were and when they were baptized as infants. It’s always seemed strange to me that somehow my paternal grandfather should remain such a mystery. So I can’t wait to use my campaign as a way to launch an investigation. If the FBI can’t vet me, then surely some hungry journalist will do the job. Maybe I’ll even get a spot on that program on PBS that find the formerly unknown ancestors of celebrities.

I’ve got a thick skin, so it won’t matter if they find some embarrassing facts, I just want to be certain that nobody makes things up. I’m looking for accuracy here so I can finally tell my siblings and our children and grandchildren from whence we came. Who knows I might even shake up the race a bit with my really strange amalgam of ideas about how our country should be governed. That alone will probably bring out more information that I actually need.

I think I may be on to something. I’m looking forward to finally knowing who I am.

Happy Birthday

4760252204_d1ab50cd7f_oToday marks the birthday of the United States of America, at least in terms of being the day that the Founding Fathers published the Declaration of Independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. That makes our country 241 years old which means that we are still really just youngsters in relation to other countries around the world.

Our government has made it through almost two and a half decades but not without a few ups and downs. Somehow our democratic republic has managed to stay intact thanks to the wisdom of the men who designed our Constitution. For better or worse their ideas appear to continue to work, but all of us sense that we have yet to achieve the perfection that we desire. In the long history of the world there has yet to be a flawless union of diverse people and ideas, so perhaps we are sometimes a bit too hard on ourselves. Still we long for a land in which people of varying cultures, backgrounds and beliefs will be able to live together in harmony. Perhaps ours is a pipe dream but it is built on what was perhaps the most audacious and daring experiment in freedom that history has ever witnessed. It seems to be in our DNA to want a nation in which everyone enjoys a full measure of justice and opportunity.

All of us can recite the problems that our country has sometimes ignored and other times attempted to unravel. We might spend hours outlining the injustices that were part of our past and some which continue into our present, but what’s done is done and our only goal should be to continue to move to an ever more just system. It does little good for any of us to stand in judgement of our nation’s architects given that we did not walk in their shoes.

I suspect that those men who developed the idea of becoming a free and independent country understood that getting everyone to agree on one document would be almost impossible, and so they were willing to make compromises along the way in the hopes that one day as the nation evolved the citizenry would be willing to accept new ideas and make changes to help our country grow ever stronger. To a large extent we have accomplished just that, but at the same time the world itself has become more and more complex. It is very difficult to read into our future because we are members of a massive global community in which there is a very delicate balance. As the saying goes, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa we all feel the effects of the flutter.

The world as we know it today is chaotic. People everywhere are searching for answers to very difficult questions. Just as with the ultimate design of our Constitution, there are no simple resolutions. Sometimes we have to compromise to keep the steady heartbeat of democracy alive. We find ourselves more and more often wondering just how much change is good and how much is too much. These were the same eternal questions that kept the signers of the Declaration of Independence awake at night.

Some of my ancestors stayed to fight the battles and some of my husband’s left for Nova Scotia to remain loyal to Britain. Who could have known back then where all of the furor would lead? Who would have dreamed that one day the entire world would be looking to our nation as a power?

In spite of my reservations about the ways in which our government runs on this day I still believe that I live in the best land on earth. I have traveled to other countries and viscerally felt the difference between our nation and theirs. On a recent trip to Mexico I was treated kindly and felt very welcome. The experience was quite lovely in all regards, but in the background were the heavily armed guards at the airport whose presence in military uniform was difficult to ignore. I enjoyed visiting the ruins of the Mayan civilization but could not help but note that the rest stop where we lingered just long enough to take care of our needs was surrounded by men in body armor who bore big guns at the ready in case of trouble. Our tour guide joked about such things and then reminded us that we should not try our adventure alone. I felt safe but had a strange sense of foreboding that I do not encounter in the place where I live.

We have a president who is struggling with his role and a Congress that seems to be incapable of working together as our Founding Fathers once did. We insist on all or nothing in our governing which has led to a great divide that far too closely resembles the state of affairs when our nation was not quite one hundred years old. We toss aside politicians who appear to want to compromise for the betterment of everyone and instead cast our lots with rabble rousers who refuse to acknowledge the things that we have in common. We forget that the our beginnings were imperfect but managed to give us a starting point. Today’s atmosphere would have kept us under the rule of Britain and we’d all be singing “God Save the Queen” if men like Madison and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson had not been able to come to an agreement that began the process of establishing our republic.

I love my country and continue to have great hope for it. We will soon enough settle down and find ways to move forward together. It is something that we always seem to eventually do. I long for politicians who will unite us rather than divide. I believe that incremental progress is inevitable. So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Long may your banners wave. Let’s hope we can guide you through your adolescent years and into a future that will unite us as never before. I have faith in you. God bless.