[I posted this originally in December 2010, a few days after My Sainted Irish Mother™ passed away. I repost it tonight for Mother’s Day. A couple of notes: The picture at the top of this post was made by my mom and my daughter Claire in 2005 or 2006 when my mom was watching the kids while Jenn and I ran the Chicago marathon. It’s a picture of the tree outside the living room window of her condominium, a tree that she loved to look at and particularly loved to watch change colors in the fall. That tree was particularly meaningful to her in the fall of 2010 as she confronted her last illness, because she knew she’d never see it grow green again. Also, the Maya Angelou verses come from the poem she wrote for Bill Clinton’s first inaugural in 1993. My mom loved the poem, and especially those verses, and found them to be particularly uplifting at the time. We’d lost my brother John in April 1991, and that was, of course, really hard on her. She found a certain solace in those words, and one of my brothers had them calligraphed and framed for her. Those verses were reproduced on the back of the prayer cards handed out at her wake.]
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you
Give birth again
To the dream.
– Maya Angelou, “Inaugural Poem” (1993)
Earlier I promised I’d share some thoughts about my mom, Margaret Mary Durkin von Ebers, who passed away last Tuesday, November 30, 2010, at the age of 86. I suppose the place to start is with the well-worn Margaret Mead quotation:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Because my parents were among that small group of committed citizens in my home town back in the 1960s and ’70s who were dedicated to integrating the schools and integrating our neighborhoods and embracing virtually anyone and everyone who wanted to settle here; and their example had a tremendous impact the region, and on our state, and eventually on the country as a whole. (For more information, see Evan McKenzie and Jay Ruby, “Reconsidering the Oak Park Strategy: Conundrums of Integration” (.pdf file).)
But it’s easier to cite Margaret Meads’ famous quotation about changing the world than it is to comprehend the mechanics of change, and that’s really what I’ve struggled with these past few days since my mother’s passing. Because I grew up with the process well underway; I grew up in an environment where we expected people to reject racism and bigotry, where we expected the schools to be open and our neighborhoods diverse; and even though Oak Park struggled with the process throughout my childhood, my kids really do live in a community that’s as open and inclusive and welcoming as any in the country. So their work – the work of my parents and their friends and colleagues, back in darker times when the world was less receptive to their values – ultimately paid off, if not for me while I was growing then certainly for my kids and their peers.
Having been born, in a sense, in the midst of that process, where, in my family at any rate, the values of diversity and acceptance were already well established and the seeds of change were already planted in our little community on the western edge of Chicago, the best place for me to begin to understand how that kind of change comes to happen is to look at my mom’s history, to figure out how she came to be who she was and how she (and my dad) could’ve had the wherewithal to stand up and be different, to stand for values that were not widely accepted outside our family and a handful of others in our community, and yet to do it while being in many ways so utterly normal.
Well, as normal as you can be when you’ve got eleven kids; but in Ascension Parish in south Oak Park, having double-digit children was not altogether unusual at the time.
So where did she come from. My mom was a Depression era child born into a large Irish Catholic family in Waukegan, Illinois, a town known mostly for being the birthplace of Jack Benny, on what Chicagoans refer to as the North Shore of Lake Michigan. Her family once owned a considerable amount of land on the North Shore, much of which eventually became the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in what is now North Chicago, Illinois. (The floor of Lake Michigan off the Great Lakes Naval Training Station is littered with the wrecks of World War II era aircraft, ditched by young pilots-in-training attempting to land on barges set out on the lake to simulate the flight decks of aircraft carriers.) As I understand it, her family enjoyed a fair amount of economic success at times, but also endured the kinds of hardships you’d expect of small business owners in the Depression; and I guess that had a lot to do with her even-keeled nature when we were growing up in a – how do I put this? – less than opulent environment.
It’s remarkable – or, maybe unremarkable – how much World War II influenced her life, from her familial connection to Great Lakes (where she, in fact, worked during the war), to her own desire to be a pilot (a profession that was, for the most part, closed to women), to her brothers’ service in the war, to her engagement to my father on Christmas Eve 1943 when my dad was on leave from the Army (possibly without permission – it’s a bit unclear), knowing he would likely be deployed overseas in the relatively near future. I still have the scapular medals my mom gave my dad for Christmas in 1943 which say, in tiny worn raised letters: “I AM A CATHOLIC. PLEASE CALL A PRIEST.” Imagine, on the occasion of your engagement, giving your future spouse medals to wear around his neck in combat to ensure that he’s given Last Rites in the event he’s wounded and doesn’t survive. Really. Just try to imagine that.
But anyway, here’s the point: Although the war influenced her life, it didn’t define her life. In fact, I think that for my dad and her what the war really did was to encourage a kind of activism and liberalism in them that defied war and death and human cruelty altogether. Like a fair number of their generation, what the war did was make them more determined than ever to ensure that its root causes – fascism, militarism, bigotry, cold blooded brutal nationalism; all those things that are the antithesis of modern liberalism – would never take hold here. The cure for what ailed the world was the polar opposite: Not cultural or racial supremacy; not cynical fear of The Other, but an open embrace of everybody you came across no matter where they came from or what they believed.
And so that’s a part of it. That’s a partial explanation of how my mom and dad came to be involved in the civil rights movement and the open housing movement here in Oak Park; how my dad, with her support and also, I think, inspired by her, came to author both our local schools’ initial diversity policy and the diversity policy adopted by our Village Trustees in 1973; how she continued to be active in the community all throughout her life, working with disabled adults, volunteering for our local hospice organization, working for one nonprofit after another, going on archeological digs in Southern Illinois, and on and on … Still, the real mystery is how my mom came to do all of this while raising eleven kids, completing her college education (she graduated from Loyola University with my oldest sister) and – get this – and embarking on a teaching career at about age 50. I’m 48, I’ve got three kids, and I’m utterly exhausted.
So there you go. There really is no explanation for where she found the strength or the energy to do all the things she did; but she did, and the world’s a better place for it.
One last observation, if I haven’t already run on too long: My mother loved her Irish heritage, and I’ve often referred to it when I talk or write about her, but it’s important to understand that my mother never viewed her love of all things Irish as a zero sum game. She never thought she, or the Irish, were any better than anybody else. She did not merely “tolerate” people of different backgrounds; she loved them. She loved differences. She loved living in a world with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics. She loved living in a world with people of different races and cultures, with gay and straight and transgendered people; she loved diversity for diversity’s sake, because, if you believe in God (and she did, in a small-c catholic kind of way), that’s the way God wanted it and that was just fine with her. She took the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and she stood it on its head, loving every crazy messed up argumentative beautiful splinter of the human family like she loved her own mother and father and siblings and her own husband and kids.
I suppose everyone remembers Marc Anthony’s famous eulogy from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, about how the evil that men do lives after them but the good is interred with their bones. In my mom’s case, though, there was no evil, and the good she did really does live on. I still haven’t figured out how we’ll live without her, but I know that as long as my kids live in the world she helped create, in a town that’s open and diverse and more than a little crazy, she’ll be here with us.
God bless you, Margaret Mary Durkin von Ebers, mo chuisle. You surely earned your keep.