Vintage Maire Brown

7 05 2015

“A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” ~ Dorothy Canfield Fisher

I was thinking about Mother’s Day this morning, making sure to remind my sons that it is this weekend. It occurred to me that I’ve written about my Dad several times, but not much about my Mom. Although I was always closer with my Father, I’ve certainly turned out to be more like my Mother.

Family 05aBeing the economist that I am, I decided to mine some passages from the eulogy I wrote for my mother in 2004. Hers was the first I had ever done, and now I have three under my belt… an old pro! Lots of memories came flooding back, and some tears. Damn… has it been 11 years since she’s been gone?

The opening line of her eulogy was, “For those of you who did not know, my Mother was Irish.” It was intended to be a joke, and it succeeded. Brought the house down! It wasn’t just that brogue, not one bit tempered after fifty years in America. It was because a lot of the adjectives associated with the Irish also accompanied descriptions of her. She was small, but powerful. Feisty, but sometimes quiet and reserved. And she had a bit of a temper…

She was one of six children born to Charles and Mary Brown, and she was named Maire.  She came into this world in September of 1928 – at the beginning of a new Ireland.  Though living in Belfast technically made them subjects of the British Empire, the Browns were Irish – through and through.  Her brother Michael was supposed to be named for his father. In those days, babies were given names when baptized in the hospital. That morning, the President of Ireland – and famous Irish freedom fighter – was assassinated. So my uncle was baptized Michael Collins Brown, and he was a rebel for most of his life. And my grandfather was more than a little pissed at Granny Brown. It’s clear where my Mother got her grit.

Mom spoke of growing up in harsh times. It was very difficult for Catholics to live and work in the predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. But the family took strength from their incredible faith and community.

484575_10151029838858494_1004293327_nShe told stories about hiding under the dining room table when air raid sirens sounded during World War II. As a kid, I thought that was so cool. As an adult, it’s one of those “WTF” things that I can’t get my head wrapped around.

Mom was a singer, and I used to hear from other family members that she was pretty good.  She actually made a record, but its whereabouts was one of the world’s most closely guarded secrets. I think her sister Anne had it at some point, but to this day it remains only a legend.

Mom regaled us with stories about growing up in Ireland. About going to ceilis – Irish dances. She told us of the great times she had with her sister Betty, and her friends – Patsy and Bunty. It seemed they were always coming home too late, sneaking cigarettes, and ALWAYS getting caught by their parents. She was clearly making a point with those stories, and years later I used that same method on my boys.

Mom loved Ireland deeply. She loved her childhood and her siblings – brothers Michael, John, Ted and sisters Anne and Betty. And she loved her niece Mary most of all. She loved her parents, and the home they provided.  But she wanted more.

MomDad02Edit

Off to the honeymoon…

In 1952, she went on a long boat ride with her sister and her friend, and came to America. She settled first outside of Newark with her cousin Jack and his family. After a visit with friends in Philadelphia a year later, she decided to make this town her home.

To Americans she was known to as “Marie” Brown, because Maire was difficult to say. In front of strangers she spoke very slowly, because she always felt her accent was a distraction. She worked at the American Pulley Company, and lived in an apartment with Betty and Bunty. A co-worker, Peg Floyd, introduced Marie to her nephew Joe – a dashing young man just out of the Air Force. Details of what surely was a whirlwind romance were never disclosed, and they were married in August 1956. They lived in a second floor apartment near Oxford Circle, just down the street from his Mother and Aunt Peg. On the first floor were Pearl and Eugene Hegh, who would become their very good friends and my Mom Mom and Pop Pop. What is it about the Irish and having so many “faux” family members?

Family 02b

The Miracle…

If things had gone according to plan, I would probably not have been the first choice to eulogize my parents. Mom lost four children over the years, including a son who is buried in Ireland. But in 1960, the best possible thing happened – I was born! Mom always told me I was her miracle because she prayed so hard for me to come. When I misbehaved, she delighted in telling me this… an effective form of Irish guilt! My sisters were also her miracles, and she dedicated her life to us.

In 1962, Mom, Dad and I moved into a new home on Bandon Drive. My earliest childhood memory is a barbecue at the new house, when Dad and Pop Pop were setting up my new swing set. Mom and Dad were founding members of Saint Anselm Parish. I suppose I was too.

In the sixties, the Dads worked and the Moms were at home running the household. Clearly, that’s a better situation than today. As children we were completely safe, and afforded the freedom to explore and learn. But we were always under that guiding hand.

22683_10153198247460871_6644957615264759857_nI loved to make Mom laugh. If I heard a joke, I couldn’t wait to tell her. She loved Polish jokes for some reason, and I delighted in the irony when my youngest sister became Mrs. Ron Zlakowski. I told her once that we could plug any nationality into those jokes, but she said it was funnier this way.  But no offense to anyone, she loved a good Irish joke too.

But all was not rosy growing up with that wee Irish woman. We had some epic battles in my teen years, and well into adulthood. I inherited her stubbornness, and never recognized that she viewed these battles to be part of her responsibility to see that I did things correctly.

I suppose that all mothers have very distinct relationships with their children. As the oldest, and as a male, I was certainly treated differently than my sisters. But in certain ways she was very consistent. Mom always challenged us to be better – to work hard, to strive, to make good decisions, and to be a good person. Ask my sons today how many times I tell them that they are judged by the decisions they make… vintage Maire Brown.

100_0789From my Mother I got my passion, and also that stubbornness. I got the ability to distinguish the right way and the wrong way of doing things. I’m proud of my heritage… an American, but with pints and pints of Irish blood coursing through my veins. And most of all, I was instilled with the understanding that the most important thing to have in life is love from family and friends. My Dad is always credited with the quote, “Ah family, that’s what it’s all about.” She might not have said it, but again… vintage Maire Brown.

As she got older we argued less, if at all. I think she realized that I was okay… that she done a good job. I know she was proud of the person I became, and of the choices I made in my life. She loved my wife and her family. She loved my friends, and always asked about them.

Mom did a hell of a job with me and my sisters. Because of her, we are strong. We have made good choices. Our children are fantastic. And the best part is that we are all very close, and always will be.

No conversation about my Mom would be complete without mentioning her partner in crime, Aunt Betty. I guess raising us – or as Mom always said, “rearing” us – was a two person job. Aunt Betty lived in our home, and she was a big part of who we are today. It was a surprise to no one that they passed on only months apart… always connected.

100_0065My mother’s final chapter was typical… she exited this life on her own terms. When faced with a long list of medical challenges and aggressive solutions that were far too risky, she decided to accept God’s will and use the time she had left to be with her family. Instead of lamenting her fate, she wanted to prepare us for life without her. But she had been doing that for years. She visited with old friends. She made sure – one last time – we did things the right way. Most importantly, she delighted in her grandchildren’s laughter. She left nothing incomplete… vintage Maire Brown.

For a few years, one of our parish priests would sing to his Mom during mass on Mother’s Day. Mom loved this, and would cry every time. It’s an appropriate verse to close this post, a great tribute for Mother’s Day. It is an Irish folk song from “only” a hundred years ago…

There’s a spot in my heart, which no colleen may own.

There’s a depth in my soul, never sounded or known.

There’s a place in my mem’ry, my life, that you fill.

No other can take it, no one ever will.

Sure, I love the dear silver that shines in your hair.

And the brow that’s all furrowed and wrinkled with care.

I kiss the dear fingers so toil-worn for me.

Oh, God bless you and keep you, Mother Machree.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom… Miss you.

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4 responses

8 05 2016
Joanne Langan

Aaahhhh…. thank you and much love for sharing, my dear cousin! Aunt Marie was a pistol, and certainly pissed as hell at my Dad for putting me out of his house at age 26. Girls should go from their parent’s house to their husband’s house, Aunt Marie believed and loudly shared. Oh Marie, said my Dad, it’s time for her to stand on her own. Lots of fights, lots of fights…… xoxo

8 05 2015
Arnie Korfine

John, this is so very well written I regret not having met your Mom. The second time I read this through I had a fleeting thought that I could change a few names and cities, substitute a synagogue for the church, and claim the writing as my own. But, that seemed like a lot of work. So my second thought was to put together some notes about my Mom and growing up under the real threat of her loving backhand, and ask you to write an essay for me. I know you’re ultra busy but I need it for Sunday.
Concerning children living at home until they marry: Jason lived at home until he got married as did his wife, Ingrid; when they came back from their honeymoon, their co-op apartment wasn’t ready so for the next few months, they continued to live at home, he with us and she with her parents. Can you imagine the jokes from friends and family?
Best

8 05 2015
Cousin Joanne

“Children should never leave their parents’ home until marriage.” — VIntage Aunt Marie

I was 25, still living large with the folks in Cheltenham, working full-time, new car, paying $50/month rent, Mom still doing my laundry and cooking for me. Then came that infamous Sunday morn when Dad handed me the Philadelphia Inquirer apartment rentals. My Mom balked a bit. Your Mom went utterly ballistic. She challenged my Dad, her brother-in-law, on more than one occasion, and it got fiery! Love and miss her too. Great post.

8 05 2015
Gr8JohnL

Fantastic!! The nerve of that woman! I remember you told me that story in a bar many years ago… I believe I gulped a shot right after. I was very familiar with her ballistic-ness.

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