Toward Something Greater: A tribute to a family matriarch who shunned the spotlight
She had spent the final evening of her life the way she often spent her evenings, half-listening to a Red Sox game while perusing the contents of The Boston Globe. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but there is a good chance that her sharp mind had begun to compose one of her famous letters to the editor offering an informed Catholic take on some social issue. Shortly after 10 p.m. on the evening of Sept. 28, 2016, my mother, Mary Catherine, settled into bed and drifted into a tranquil sleep from which she never awoke—a fittingly peaceful finale for a devotee of St. Joseph, the patron saint of happy deaths.
My mother had been adamant that while we could say a kind word or two about her at her wake, there was to be nothing that smacked of a eulogy once her casket was wheeled into the church. The funeral liturgy Mass, she had frequently reminded us, is not supposed to be about the decedent; like any Mass, it is entirely about Christ and his gift of himself in the Eucharist.
Mom got her wish. The carefully crafted prayer service at her wake was a lovefest with open-mic sharing of stories about her—from the amusing to the profoundly inspiring. But there was nary a mention of her many achievements and contributions to the church during the funeral itself. In addition to heeding her request, this was an understandable consequence of both her age and circumstance.
Although my parents had been decades-long pillars of the church in the rural community in which they raised their five children, at 96 my mother had outlived all her contemporaries who would have remembered her legacy of selfless service. She had also outlasted her beloved gang of fellow WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). She was inspired to enlist in this women’s reserve for the Navy shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
My mother was right about what mattered at such moments: that being a good Catholic is not about status or reputation, that nobody should expect a special seat at the table, either at the liturgy or in the kingdom, because all are welcome.
My mother’s funeral was at her childhood parish, but she had returned to it only late in life. It was a function of circumstance in that financial challenges and my father’s declining health had made it necessary for them to leave first one, and then another, parish community in which they had become well-known to move in with one of my sisters, just a stone’s throw from the urban church in which she had been baptized and married but which she had not frequented for half a century. My father had died shortly after that move, but my mother became as active a member of that parish as an octogenarian and then nonagenarian could be.
The pastor of her parish had been reassigned shortly before my mother died, so it happened that her funeral was celebrated by a priest who had never met her and whose homiletic references to her had an unmistakably generic “insert decedent’s name here” quality. I am embarrassed to admit that bothered me. A part of me that is way less wise and mature than she wanted to stand up and shout out, “You should have known her in her prime. She was a powerhouse, a veritable Catholic V.I.P.”
But I realized that my mother was right about what mattered at such moments: that being a good Catholic is not about status or reputation, that nobody should expect a special seat at the table, either at the liturgy or in the kingdom, because all are welcome. There are no privileged insiders; there is no rope line to cut. We were gathered to celebrate something more than any one of us. We gathered to celebrate the faith community, the mystical body, the communion of saints (among whom I was convinced she had already taken her place, happily beyond the ability of any homiletic words to add or detract from the living legacy of her steadfast faith).
All but one of her 11 grandchildren were seated in the pews. Their beliefs, not unlike those of many other members of their generation, run the gamut from true believer to millennial seeker to “not really my thing, thanks.” But they all recognized that Grammy’s deep faith had inspired everything that made her such a fascinating and attractive figure to them—her warmth, humility, candor, self-deprecating sense of humor and generosity of spirit from which they, and so many others, had benefited. Whatever their beliefs, they had a shared sense that what was taking place at that moment was profoundly spiritual and consequential.
There was a powerful communal sense of yin and yang. A shared, if implicit, marveling at the paschal mystery—the cycles of dying and new life.
The interment followed the usual military protocol. The obligatory playing of taps was provided by a recording from a boombox, since there have been so many recent deaths among veterans that no live trumpet player was available. Two young women in Navy uniforms presented us with the flag that had draped my mother’s coffin and offered the condolences of “a grateful nation.” Like the priest celebrant, they, of course, had never heard of her. Still, they likely would have surmised that her life had been about sacrifice and service. That assumption would have provided connection enough.
After the burial, we made our way to one of the local Irish watering holes—a de rigueur element of funeral protocol in my family. Somehow, amid the din of reacquaintance and reminiscences, I made out the faint bleating of my cellphone. My wife was calling from 250 miles away to announce that at approximately the same moment that we were tossing roses into the gash in the ground that had enveloped the earthly remains of my mom, a surgeon’s scalpel had been slicing into the belly of my daughter—that one missing grandchild. And through that gash, two new family members were ushered into the clan that had just bid farewell to its matriarch.
The mood in the room, which had already been celebratory—a life so splendidly lived!—became exuberant as we welcomed the news of these two little miracles into the circle of love and laughter that their great-grandmother had done so much to create and sustain. There was a powerful communal sense of yin and yang. A shared, if implicit, marveling at the paschal mystery—the cycles of dying and new life. Our God was a God of abundance; the family tree had sprouted two verdant branches to fill in for the one that now lay bare.
The members of my immediate family were soon racing along the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Merritt Parkway. With each mile that brought us farther from Boston and closer to that maternity ward in New Jersey, the day was becoming less about the sorrow of a loved one lost and more about the ones we were about to meet, less about the past—however cherished—and more about the exciting prospects of a shared future. Fare thee well, Mary Catherine. Welcome to the clan, Molly Kathleen and Fiona Grace.
We ended the day of my mother’s funeral looking forward to the new life ahead of us. No better tribute to her could be offered.