Thursday, February 4, 2010

Remembering my Godmother

My godmother, Mary Catherine (Mertes) Walker, died Jan 23, 2010. She was born August 31, 1917. World War I had less than three months to run its course in Armistice in November. She was twelve years old, not quite ready for high school when the stock market crashed in 1929. When it came time for High School, Mary Kate, as she was known throughout her lifetime, attended Notre Dame, the same school that her first-cousin, Helen Rose (Mertes) Manor had attended before her. (Decades later, my niece Jennifer also attended that high school and took great pride in looking up her predecessors in the archives of the school newspaper.)

I seem to remember that Mary Kate took a secretarial course after High School and she was able to find work in spite of the depression and the advent of World War II. Shortly after the war she married Charles Walker, "Charlie" and they settled down to the tasks of raising a family--six children, five girls and one boy.

I remember this family well from my own childhood in Toledo and the time that my sister and I spent several days with them while our parents supervised the loading of all our belongings unto a moving van and the cleaning and closing of our little house prior to our own great trek across the continent in the 1955 Chevy Bel Air sedan that I sold a few years ago to someone who was eager to restore it.

I have been thinking of Mary Kate for the last ten days. How many loads of laundry did it take, hauled up and down flights of stairs to keep a family of eight clean and dressed with towels and bedding to boot? Please remember that in those days most of the clothes and all of the linen--even the kitchen dish towels --needed ironing. (And on Saturdays, my godmother took her turn bringing the church linens she had also found the time to launder to the church where she joined several other women in cleaning the sacristy and setting out the linen for Masses the next day.)

How many pounds of potatoes did she peel and cakes did she bake in the years that it took to raise a family of six children? Not to mention the children and grandchildren. In addition, like the church laundry, there would have also been baking for the church bake sales and cooking for the potlucks, spaghetti dinners and fish frys that every church holds to raise funds. That doesn't include the casseroles delivered to people in the parish when illness or death struck a house.

Over the last decade Mary Kate and I talked on the phone occasionally, not frequently enough. I drew on her deep faith and quiet strength to go forward with my own life. She told me, "If you fall asleep while you are saying your prayers, your guardian Angel finishes them for you." (Does it count if you meant to say your prayers, but fall asleep reading yet another mystery novel from the library, because you have to get them all finished before the library volunteer brings some more?)

Like my father, she never had an unkind word to say about anyone or anything. "If you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything," was a watch word that she lived by. Like my parents, too, she lived the everyday virtue of charity in her kindness, courtesy and service to others.

Last week, partly out of necessity, and partly, I think because I was remembering Mary Kate and my mother too and pondering how much work these women quietly did everyday to make our lives glad, I found myself in a frenzy of "multi-tasking" household chores. One afternoon I had bread in the bread machine (no bread machine in the 1950's), laundry in both the washer and the dryer (no dryer until the mid-1950's) and muffins in the oven. At one point I almost muffed the muffins--forgot they were in the oven and they nearly burned. In between, I washed dishes. Nothing compared to the dishes Mary Kate, with eight people in the house, washed everyday.

By the time I ate my supper that night, I had appetite, felt that I had earned it and savored it, simple as it was. (Tomato soup and muffins.) I thought about housework, including cooking, as I have for the past year or so, as the foundation to the practice of the virtue of humility. Just as kindness and courtesy are the foundation of the virtue of charity.

Most of us are not called upon to practice heroic virtue. Still finding the virtue in homely things may keep us well enough in body and in spirit to live a long and happy life. Saying the rosary every day, (or a comparable practice) as I suspect my godmother did isn't a bad idea either.

I am grateful for the life of my godmother and the lives of my parents and others whom I miss who have gone before me. I miss her and I will continue to miss her along with Mama and Papa. It was a simpler life in someways; I have nostalgia for those long gone days, partly because I was a child then. (Perhaps that is another blog post.) Remembering Mary Kate and my parents will give me the foundation for continuing my own life in this all too modern century that I live in.

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