By Paul M. Lewis
If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.
No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.
Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.
Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.
I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.
The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.
Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.
Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.
Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.
Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.
I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?