Tuesday, March 17, 2009
St. Patrick's Day
My grandmother, Kathleen Agnes Daly Bennett, immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1923. She was 18 years old. In the picture to the above, taken around 1909, she is the little girl in the front center, with the two bows in her hair. They called her Katie.
She came alone on a freighter, was processed through Ellis Island and was met by her older sister May, who had already been here for several years. My grandmother described the trip as an absolute misery but could not really recall much of Ellis Island, except that she saw people with black skin, from Africa, for the first time.
She had grown up in a mining village in the west of Ireland, in a genuine thatched cottage. She dispelled any romantic images of charm by pointing out living things fell out of the thatch. Eeeew. That tiny house, where 12 people once lived, is now a ruin.
She met my grandfather a few years after coming here and they were married in 1930. His family had been comfortably well off, but my great grandfather’s business failed in the Depression. So my grandfather got the most dependable job he could and became a New York City policeman.
They had six children, losing their first little girl when she was five months old. They worked hard their whole lives to raise their family. And when we grandchildren came along, they extended that love and care to us.
St. Patrick’s Day was special in our family, but primarily as a holy day, in honor of a saint. My grandfather always worked the parade and as my mother and aunts and uncle grew up, there was usually one or another actually in the parade, it was a tradition that most Manhattan Catholic schools took part.
As time went on and we all gradually moved to the suburbs, the focus changed. No one was in the parade any more, but my grandmother loved to watch it on television. She had a great, dry wit. She would joke she wanted to see how inebriated Jack McCarthy would be by the end of the parade and if he’d still be standing.
St. Patrick’s Day eventually became Grandma’s day. It was the day we all, my aunts, my cousins, my siblings, made a point of contacting her, sending her flowers, calling her to let her know how much she meant to us. We did not talk much about the sacrifices she made by coming here. She never saw her mother again, as my great grandmother died soon after she left. She only saw her father once again before he died. Despite her losses, we celebrated each year all that she had modeled for us throughout our lives, love, strength, a reverence for education, a sense of humor, dignity and graciousness.
My grandmother died, a little more than a year after my grandfather, on August 6, 2000. She was 96, but even that many years were not enough for me. I think about her and miss her every single day.
Here is part of the reading I was privileged to give at her funeral, from Proverbs:
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
As is custom, I bowed to the altar when I was done. But then I turned and deeply bowed to my grandmother’s casket, to honor a woman who has left me an endless legacy of grace and courage and love.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, my beloved Grandmother.