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My grandmother emigrated from Ireland at the age of 16. There was, for her, no high school education, no mention of a college fund or a career. There was, instead, an early marriage followed by eleven pregnancies in all. Four of her children were claimed by miscarriage and of the seven who were carried full term, only five lived long enough to start school. My mother can remember my grandmother washing diapers by the dozens with lye soap and a wooden washboard. She remembers the coal stove that her mother filled every morning to warm the kitchen and dry the diapers. She can recall her mother weeping uncontrollably as she held another dying baby in her arms. Perhaps most vividly, my mother, just a little girl at the time, remembers the day her mother died.
Mary Dwyer was 43 years old when life left her. She was waked in the front parlor of the apartment that she shared with her husband of 26 years. In 1931, my maternal grandmother was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery, a place I have only visited once.
I couldn't help but wonder if she would recognize the woman standing at her grave as one of her own. I am a descendant who has never experienced economic deprivation or maladies of children for whom there is no cure. I am not like her. I am educated, I am financially secure, I benefit from medical technology and my children have been immunized. I have crossed the Atlantic many times, not in search of a new home or a better life, but for European vacations. I was born in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world and have grown accustomed to the American success story that is envied by the poor and the persecuted and those who hunger and thirst for justice, all of whom Jesus speaks of as blessed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus chose to live and die among the people from whom I have been distanced. I have known and passed on to my children a reality that is different from the reality that Jesus embraced and spoke of as blessed. If we have separated ourselves from the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed, perhaps we have separated ourselves from Christ. Perhaps the experience of mourning, of suffering, and persecution opens us to the Kingdom of God in a way that money and power and prestige cannot. I wonder if my children, who by their birthright have been protected from the harsh realities of life, will understand the language of the beatitudes. Their experience of life barely resembles the experience of Jesus and those whom He loved.
I am told that my grandmother was a devout Catholic whose faith sustained her throughout the hardships that she encountered as a young woman. She forged the way into a world where I am safe from the very things from which she suffered. I have never known the injustices saved for immigrants and women who had neither vote nor voice. I have never wanted for a meal or held a dying baby. I have enjoyed a life where I longed for nothing except the opportunity to have known her, to have shared her stories and been blessed by her wisdom, to have understood her faith and fortitude.
Today I am 43 years old. Unlike my grandmother, I celebrate this birthday with good health and happiness and high hopes for the future. I have everything she ever dreamed of or worked for. I have what she would have called "the good life". But I wonder if I have lived a good life. I wonder if my 43 years honor the memory of her 43 years, her sacrifices, her struggles and her sorrows. What would she think of me if she were here today?
Among the many things I have is the gift of knowing that I have been created in the image of God, just like the immigrant, the impoverished and the marginalized, those who are cold, who are without food or shelter or safety. Those of us who have been richly blessed are called to bless those who have not been as fortunate, those who hunger and thirst for God's justice in an unjust world and for His mercy in a world that can be cold and unforgiving. Those of us with a voice are called to be the peacemakers, to work toward justice, to speak for those who cannot be heard, and to stand by the less fortunate, knowing that just a generation or two ago, our loved ones stood among them. Perhaps it is among society's lost and long forgotten that we will discover the pure in heart, the meek, and the merciful and then, and only then, will the Kingdom of God be ours.
-- by Patricia McDonough
E-mail comments to the author at: McDonough55@aol.com
This article is © Copyright 2000 by Patricia McDonough