Walking into the house where my maiden Aunt Mary lived and where my father was born was always a homecoming for us as we gathered from wherever our foreign service family of six had been in the world. Mary had lived there her whole life and my father, like she, was born there. The house, an old, creaky, cavernous three-story home was the final repository for everything in my father’s family, all the stories, all the people and all the things acquired during their lifetimes. When I wrote Mary’s eulogy when she died at age 92, the eulogy was as much about the constancy and comfort she provided in our lives as it was about her house. Mary’s warmth, welcome and ever presence were intimately bound with that of her home. She and it gave us the rest we needed to once again reenter our lives in the world swirling outside her door.
Mary was our jewel. Our precious gem. Our port in the storm, our safe harbor. She was a constant in our lives, our anchor in rocky seas. She provided a place where we could go, where we were always welcome. Our home away from home, our balm against the loneliness, so far from our parents.
She was the Red Line to Washington Street, switch to Orange for Forest Hills, down the steps and catch the bus to Anawan Avenue. She was 325-3371. She was 78 Stratford Street, West Roxbury Mass. 02132. As burned into our brains as any other significant piece of data in our lives. She was always there.
She was candy in the top left hand drawer in the dining room, beef casserole on Sunday nights, meatloaf on Thursdays, the dish of ice cream with chocolate jimmies in a pressed glass bowl, several Pepperidge Farm cookies resting on the underliner. The menu never changed and neither did the warmth and nurturing that went with it. She was a card on every occasion signed in her beautiful Palmer method,penmanship “With love, Aunt Mary”. She was prayers from the Cenacle during dark periods. Her card sent during an anxious pregnancy has been my watchword since I received it 14 years ago: “I know not by what method rare, but I know this, God answers prayer.” She was the Sunday afternoon phone call to Agnes, her friend of 70 years, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. Constant.
She was pinning 20 dollars to the inside of Dick’s pocket, just in case, and taking him to the Carney for his vein operation. She was bringing a nervous freshman to college for the first time, and treating a bored high schooler to some new spring clothes over another long and parentless spring break. She was having something good to look forward to at dinner and offering an anxious soul a kind word and a plan, believing there was comfort in control. A visit to 78 and a simple meal could make anything better.
I will never forget her beautifully applied makeup and the soft folds of her perfect skin. Her patrician nose, my father’s nose. Her large, sturdy hands, broad fingers, nails clipped, no polish, my father’s hands, my father’s mannerisms, those hands patting down on the air in front of her. Calm now, steady. Every thing will be all right. As it always was, with her light burning in the window, the night owl that she was, for whenever we came to her, from Libya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Pakistan, Rome, New York, South Hadley, Andover, Groton, Philadelphia, Cotuit
She was lilies of the valley in the front yard, laundry on the line in the back, and treasures in the attic. She was the keeper of the flame.
She kept my father’s letters home from World War II which have helped us to know him before he was ours. She kept the caul, folded onto itself, hidden in the dark of Gertrude’s strong box, a good luck charm against the fears of an age. She kept the ordinary objects of everyday life spanning a century that told a family’s story. She was the steward of that legacy, the family historian, the one who knew. She spoke of Uncle Dan, never the same after World War I and Aunt Josephine, the smart one, of Grandfather Cashin, an enthusiastic cook and oarsman and the lady that was her mother.
She was the something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue in our weddings. She proffered family names for our babies, dating back to the Civil War, a passion of hers. She supplied the context for Marshall and Jane Kevill and the Duke that no one ever used. She cheerfully produced silly chants that softened the chaos and stress of our lives. Even now the memory of her “When in trouble, or in doubt, run in circles, race and shout.” brings a smile and ease.
She never married. She came home when my father, 10 years her junior, age 17, went to war. She never left. He got to know her through her letters and her packages to him, commenting in one letter home that the nuts she sent him served as his platoon’s Christmas dinner as they were tossed from foxhole to foxhole during the cold week he spent in the Ardennes in late December 1945. She took care of her parents, burying each in turn. Then Gertrude and Marion, Bill, Peg and Richard. She treasured her friends, keeping up with those she had acquired at Notre Dame Academy, Regis, Simmons, Mt. St Joseph Academy and the Cashin Company. Her neighbors became her friends. She made friends all her life and some of the most stalwart were those she made towards the end of her life. Her Lillians, her Marys. She was smart and stylish and dependable and we were so blessed to have her. Everyone should be so lucky as to have an Aunt Mary in their lives. She was devoted to us.
She brought shrimp and spiced pecans to Thanksgiving. She cooed at our babies’ angel lips. Always the protectress of children, she knew just what would please and occupy them, from a fresh box of crayons and a coloring book, to a shiny red matchbox car , to a box of bandaids with all its possibilities. Even at the end of her life, she could turn a phrase, reflecting the best of the Irish tradition. She never ceased being a lady. She was our touchstone of gentility in an increasingly rude and unkind world.
In our mind’s eye, we will always see her standing on the porch of 78 Stratford Street, waving goodbye as we left her cocoon and headed off into the world yet one more time. We stand here today and wish you God Speed, Aunt Mary, as you loose your mortal stays and join Jesus, at whose mention you never failed to bow your head, even in the last restless days of your life. We thank you for your constancy in our lives.
Two days before your death, my mother sat with you quietly, intoning Hail Marys, feeling they calmed you and thanking you for allowing her to fulfill her role as a diplomat’s wife overseas so far away from the four children she had to leave behind in boarding schools. Enveloped in the fog of leaving and the haze of the medicines used to ease your pain, one last time, you rose to the occasion, as you were so wont to do throughout your life and you comforted my mother, who claimed you as the best friend she ever had, by touching a tissue to your lips, no longer the hanky that you always kept tucked under the cuffs of your cardigan with grosgrain trim, saying to her, “I was happy to do it. I loved you.” Your final goodbye to us.
But not to me. Leaving West Roxbury on Tuesday, I headed for home. The wrong way up LaGrange. Lost, I began to navigate by feel. Nothing. I reached for the eulogy I had been working on and glanced at it on my lap as I slowed at stop signs and lingered at lights looking for the familiar. As my eyes fell up the words “catch the bus to Anawan Avenue”, I saw it. The sign. Like a beacon. Beckoning. Anawan Avenue. 78 Stratford was just up the hill and around the corner. Had I gotten out, I might have seen her eaves. One last time, your light in the window, a benediction, guiding me home.
As we say our goodbyes to you, we hope you find rest in the company of your mother and father, for whom you waited and to whom you called more and more often in the last year of your life. Mary, we certainly found rest in you, a woman without children of her own, who became a mother to us all.