To her, Mary was the old aunt from America who wouldn’t tolerate little boys horsing around the house. With one look and a curt “knock it off” spit through grit teeth, they were put in their place.
I knew that look well. She had the ability to pierce through steel with that gaze when we acted up as kids.
She would cock an eyebrow and glare at you like a falcon inspecting a baby rabbit with a broken foot. It was a look that displayed both her impatience and disbelief that such an unwashed heathen had dropped from her family tree.
I am envious of her. As a parent, I have tried unsuccessfully to perfect that withering glance, and my kids ride all over me no matter how coldly I gaze in their direction.
We were gathered as a family last Sunday at the 9 a.m. Mass in Aunt Mary’s parish to honor her on the fifth anniversary of her passing. You could almost feel her in the pew with us, the no nonsense Irish matriarch whose direct, fair, and loving influence was so strong that she kept all of us on the straight and narrow half a decade following her sudden death.
Her best friend Bernadette came to the house for tea after Mass. I introduced myself to her as Mary’s nephew, to which she replied, “Why wouldn’t I know you? Sure, I read ye every week in the Irish Voice and mind yeh, there are some weeks that I don’t care for yeh at all.”
No wonder Mary got along so well with this woman. Like Bernadette, Mary called it as she saw it without thinking of how it might land over there because the filter between her brain and mouth was either non-existent or hopelessly clogged. Children of Irish mothers know well what I mean here.
I was a bit nervous about putting her in the same room as my wife’s grandmother on our wedding day. Baba, as she was called, loved to tell the tale of red-headed boys throwing rocks at the only Jewish girl in Kansas.
“Two things I can’t stand are prejudiced people and the Irish,” Baba would say. You could imagine how my courtship with my Jewish wife went.
Anyway, I winced as Mary and Baba chatted at the perimeter of the dance floor because I was a nervous wreck overall at my wedding over the prospect of this uneasy Catholic/Jewish family connection, but was terrified by the notion that these two matriarchs might cross swords.
Mary soon returned to “our side” of the room, sat in her chair, and tucked the slip under her red dress before nodding in Baba’s direction.
“That’s a woman who speaks her mind,” she declared. “Sure, there’s not enough of us in the world anymore.”
With that, the ice melted between the Irish and Jews as we found a common ground in our servitude to straight-talking elder stateswomen. In subsequent family gatherings, the pair was inseparable.
Mary was actually quite kind and selfless, a model servant of the Lord whose faith sustained her in the best and worst of times. She was not cross, but you could see how a kid could think that way about her.
No, Mary was just an extremely practical woman who thought it was ridiculous to cater on every whim of a child that should be seen and not heard.
There are hilarious home videos of my cousin Robert opening up the same fire truck under the Christmas tree year after year; he was so overwhelmed with the bounty that he never missed it. “Sure, how much can a kid really play with before they become overloaded?” she said with a huff once in her defense while we joked around her about the shameless “re-gifting.”
I can remember vividly a time when she threw cousin Rob’s hockey equipment out of his third floor bedroom and onto the concrete patio below in another lesson of no-bull parenting.
“What are you doing?!” Rob screamed. “You could have broken these things! They are worth hundreds of dollars!”
“Are they?” she shouted, horsing the hockey sticks out the window as she spoke.
“How was I to know that? They were just lying around the floor after I told you five times to pick them up and care for them. You treated this stuff like junk, so I assumed it was.”
I can’t remember ever seeing the hockey gear laying around ever again, proving that this cross woman was someone you’d never want to cross!