We have many teachers in our lives, and I remember my first one very well. She has always been very special to me and encouraged me in every way. As she taught, she did so with great patience and fortitude and with an equally great and fervent faith, not only in her charge—me—but also in God. And while she might have only had a National School certificate from a small country village in the west of Ireland, the lessons she taught loomed large—and still does. And what was remarkable about this was that she did it all the while with a happy smile and a generous laugh and a curiosity that knew no bounds. Her teaching methods were not found in a treatise or a textbook; it was founded or I should say, grounded—in love. There was no way I could not learn from a teacher such as this; and most fortuantely for me, this teacher was my mother.
It could be said that learning from one’s mother is the work of a lifetime; it is an achievement as well as it’s own reward—and it certainly has been an interesting endeavor. It happens as soon as you’re born, when you’re dressed up and put into her arms and you are given your name and then you make eye contact for the first time, and then the motherly instruction commences: it is a precious thing. When you get older—much older—you realize how wonderful that is, to be taught by someone from the very beginning and that you come to realize that not many people have that chance to be as fortuitious as you. And so it was with me. There are so many lessons that I have learned from her that they are like the stars in the nighttime sky, many and varied and meaningful.
There was the time…when I was preparing to make my first Holy Communion. Before that was to be, I had to make my first confession (which, in later years, would come to be known as penance and then reconciliation), which was a daunting task. Not that I was an unrepentant sinner or anything (I was barely seven years old!), it was just that—to be frank about it—I was more than a little scared of the process, and of the darkness within the confessional, to boot. It wasn’t like Monty Hall and “Let’s Make a Deal” whereby you got to pick door number one or door number two and get to see what you’ve selected; but it certainly felt that way. Mind you, in those days, you went to confession in confessional boxes and in the neighborhood church I grew up in—St. Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx—had these massive confessional boxes that to my young eyes, looked like miniature apartment buildings, with long, heavy curtains attached on either side of the center box where the priest was supposed to sit. I knew that the purpose of confession had to do with God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, but I still wasn’t quite cognizant about the whole thing.
I wasn’t sure that once I stepped into the confessional that I wouldn’t be swallowed by the darkness therein—it was enough to give a kid like me a few nights' worth of nightmares—or at the very least, a very bad dream or two. I didn’t know how I would be able to handle it; but then, fortunately, Mom came to the rescue. It was ingenious, how she dealt with it; she simply brought me to the church one Saturday afternoon when all was quiet and empty. She just marched me up the center aisle and after genuflecting, turned to the left to the said confessional box with the heavy curtains. She then went on to explain that there was nothing to be afraid of; that this was a special kind of “dark,” or as she put it, “God’s dark,” which was a holy and comforting thing, especially when that shaft of soft yellow light slowly appeared, courtesy of the priest opening that little window in order to allow the penitential process to begin.
She then proceeded to do something that was quite daring for the time: she opened the center door and then sat herself where the priestly posterior would normally be. Like an experienced airline pilot, she went through the motions until everything was covered on the checklist; she kept at it until I got the hang of it, understood it, and most importantly, did so without fear. It wasn’t until much later, when I was much older, that I thought: what if one of the Reverend Augustinian Fathers happen to come upon this scene, grasping his breviary for dear life, seeing what he thought he saw? What then? Would we have gotten away with three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys? Only the holy dark knows…
To be sure, that was one of the many lessons and memories that I have, courtesy of my mother. But there was another thing about her that impressed me as well and that was her sense of humor. I always remember her being cheerful and smiling and most of all, laughing. I learned from her that despite the difficulties you have—and encounter—in life, that did not mean you couldn’t face them with a smile and a laugh. There was never a time or a circumstance that could not be dealt with without a healthy dose of humor (not to mention a prayer or two, of course). This was one trait that was very attractive about her (and one I always thought that attracted Dad to her when they first met). There were many a time in my childhood when I would wake up in the morning hearing her wonderful laugh at something funny my father was recounting from the day before. Mom’s laughter was better than any alarm clock and by far more musical than any soundtrack.
I was a witness to this in my boyhood and of all places—in church. There was a time when we were attending Mass in Tolentine’s lower church, which was modeled after one of those ancient Roman grottos, with gorgeous mosaics behind the altar, with stones along the walls. It so happened that on this particularly Sunday, the Augustininan friar was in fine full fettle, peppering his sermons full of hell, fire and brimstone, with a thundering voice to match. It wasn’t like we couldn’t hear him, there were microphones and loudspeakers in the church—I just couldn’t understand all the fuss. I couldn’t take it any more, so I simply tugged at my mother’s sleeve and almost asked in a stage whisper: “Why is the priest yelling, Mommy?” Looking quizzically at her, I said: “Are we all deaf?” Well…it was all poor Mom could do to contain herself from breaking out into gales of happy laughter, even in church.
And, as she got older, her humor got sharper. Like any other “senior citizen,” she had to make periodic trips to this or that doctor or specialist from time to time. One time, I went with her for an appointment she had to keep. The waiting room was crammed with all kinds of people with all kinds of ailments (God help the poor souls). Once we were seated, Mom cast a gimlet eye and turning to me, said in a conspiratorial whisper: “Look at all these old people…” And the ironic thing of all was she was probably ten or twenty years older than the rest of them in that waiting room and they looked in far worst shape! Oh, there was the time we were driving past a bus stop where a gaggle of old ladies were waiting to be picked up (by the bus, dear reader!). Looking at that scene, Mom said: “Look at them! They were once probably “women of the night” and now, shuffling by with their grocery bags, they’re the ladies of the morning!” That’s another lesson from Mom: never think yourself old, and you’ll be forever young.
Yes, my mother was my teacher and I was her student. She taught me not only to endure math (for the greater glory of God) but to accept whatever disappointments that were sure to occur in life (in and out of school) and to bear it with patience, fortitude and a cheerful smile. I remember all those times she helped me with all the other things, like how to prepare and outline, how to read well and how to cover my schoolbooks with the paper bags from the A&P as the sisters demanded so that they wouldn’t set soiled or damaged. All that and more that made up for the lessons of childhood and life.
But of all the lessons she taught me, it was the lesson of her life that mattered most. She never had to say “I love you,” for it was a given (to use that dreaded mathematical term). She never had to engage in excessive hugging or kissing, for her silent worrying said it all—and then some. She never had to explain that God was love, because she was the personification of it. She always was willing to lend her ear to listen to what her child needed to say and to do so with encouragement, even when she might have been bone-tired from the day’s parenting and housekeeping. Yes, she did it all—and like the Christmas season she so loved—the presents she gave never needed to be wrapped and could never be contained in a box, and it was all freely given.
What else can I say about my mother, Ellen Granahan McAuley, native of Crossmolina, County Mayo, now just past her 92nd birthday? The woman who is my mother, who survived a heart-valve operation and a pacemaker (and much more besides) who can still rattle off the Gaelic and the Church Latin when the spirit moves her; the woman who can kick up her heels when sprightly music is heard; the woman who began her life on a farm almost a century ago, doing the chores like milking the cows when her brothers were out in the fields and the times when she and her sister Bridgie would go to choir practice; the young woman who came to America on a majestic ship called the Queen Elizabeth II, not knowing what was ahead of her?
I could say more, but my heart knows. All the love and prayers she offered in her life can never be repaid, but mine are hers, such as they are. But I cannot help remembering my late father Harry (gone seven years now) too, who had the great good fortune to marry her all those many years ago. Together, this couple, Mom and Dad, provided for their children—my sister and me—a world they never would have had—or known—had they never left the place of their birth. It wasn’t an easy thing for them to do, yet they did. Thank you, Mom, for the lessons—and the love that went with them. So, on this day, Mom, I offer you this verbal bouquet in return—and not just for today. The more truthful thing to say is that every day is Mother’s Day and I will always be grateful for the gift that is you: and for your love and your laughter—but most importantly, your faith.