November 15 of 2001 was the height of the Indian summer in Massachusetts. My mother and I drove up to the North Shore of Boston on a crisp and sunny day to stroll the streets of Rockport. On the drive Mom gave me the low-down on her most recent project – funeral planning. She had her living will in order, labeled prize possessions for distribution, and arranged for her cremation and burial next to her parents in Totowa, New Jersey.
I listened politely. It gave Mom peace to know that everything was planned, but the discussion was too morbid for such a vibrant day. Mom was fully alive and I did not want to contemplate her death.
We had lunch in a seaside café, wandered through trinket stores, bought some beautiful shells to craft into Christmas ornaments. Then out of the blue she said “And more thing, Paulie, when I die nobody needs to come see my dead face.”
I smiled, but knew that when the time came, I would be a disobedient son.
I want to thank all of you for coming here this morning to be part of the disobedient band who have come together against Pat’s wishes for the purpose of singing her praises. This may not be what Mom said she wanted, but I bet she is pretty pleased with everybody who showed up.
Pat Fallon was an iconic representative of what is often called ‘The Greatest Generation’.
She lived the Depression first hand, bunking in with the Flanagan’s while her father held on to his job walking door to door to collect dime premiums for Prudential.
World War II clouded her high school and college years, and swept her brother Bill into a watery grave.
She celebrated the Allies victory and enjoyed the affluence that followed, working in New York at Bonwit Teller until she married the man of her dreams, had six children and lived in a tidy suburban house.
Even as the century wore on and the vision of the Greatest Generation began to fracture, Mom represented its evolution. In the 1970’s she reentered the world of work, then in the 1980’s she got divorced. She lived alone the rest of her life, like so many women of her generation.
While all of this is true, it falls short as a way to measure the unique individual who was my mother.
Our Mom was warm, thoughtful, and at times, wicked funny, but in these last few months I have developed a much wider perspective on her life. I think that she was stronger than she appeared, certainly stronger than she portrayed herself, and it is fair to say that she was even courageous.
The world changed. Nuclear families became networked families. Ethnic and religious ties loosened. Individuals pursued singular dreams. Each of these changes bumped and stretched Mom’s idea of a family, but she absorbed the change, she adapted to it, and I think she even thrived on the adventures that resulted.
Look at where she started. Pat grew up the youngest daughter in a very Irish Catholic family, pious and close knit, god-loving and god-fearing, in a small town with her twelve cousins nearby. Her oldest brother became a priest, her sister a nun, her closest brother a war hero. Pat married. That may appear to be a conventional act, but anyone who ever met Jack Fallon knew that marrying him was rebellious, and my mother signed on for the full ride.
So how has Pat’s family evolved today?
We are spread apart. Her five children live in four different states; she has fourteen grandchildren who live thousands of miles from each other.
We are less Irish. Mom and her children have 100% Irish blood. But all five of us married people with zero Irish ancestry, and our children married an even wider pool. For Mom’s eleven great grandchildren, Irish is just another ingredient in their unique ethnic cocktail. They are simply ‘American’.
We are also less Catholic. In fact, none of us are Catholic.
So how did each of Pat Fallon’s children develop the strength of character, or independence, or whatever you want to call it, to carve out our own lives in our own places with our own partners and our own set of beliefs?
The answer lies at the source, with our mother. Pat Fallon had a fierce belief in family and in church, but it was never a narrow belief, it was always a broad and inclusive view of the world, and she translated that to each of us. Our mother valued her roots, and she remained true to them, but she never tied us down with them. She gave us the strength to find our own.
Most of the time when I think about my mother I feel like I am eight years old again, living in New Jersey in that very noisy house on Ray Drive. We had two parents, like everyone else on the street, but it often felt like there was about six. There was Mom, and Dad, but there were also Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe.
The Magnavox at the foot of the stairs, the one I polished with Pledge every Saturday morning, was the center of our house, and the albums that we kept in the storage compartment were our well worn treasures. The two most popular by far, were The Sound of Music, a picture of Mary Martin standing tall and confident with an impish grin and a guitar strung around her neck, and My Fair Lady, with the Hirschfield line drawing of a benevolent George Bernard Shaw peering over the clouds, manipulating the marionette of a cockney Julie Andrews with strings.
Those two album covers conveyed all the important lessons I needed to know. First, that good things happen to people with pluck and good cheer, and second, that the hand of God guides everything.
Mom sang. Mom sang a lot. We learned early on that when there was torch song screaming out of the kitchen it was a good idea to steer clear, but when the tunes of Broadway’s golden age filled our house, everything was right in the world. When Dad handed over his Friday night paycheck she would ‘Look, look, look to the rainbow and follow the fellow who followed the dream.’ When she reminisced about days before children she would sing “I could have danced all night’ and in those three glorious years when John Kennedy was President, our house was cloaked in the glory of ‘Camelot’.
That intense musical indoctrination of catchy tunes sticks to person. Even today, I still whistle whenever I feel afraid. Apparently show tune philosophy even crosses generational boundaries, because even as we speak, Mom’s grandson Andy is taking the directive to ‘Climb Every Mountain’ with dogged literacy as he hikes the 2100 mile Appalachian Trail.
There was a lot of Broadway in our house in New Jersey, and I always associate it with the best of our times there. But the zeal to live life as lyricized by Rogers and Hammerstein reached its apex in 1971 when my parents actually moved to O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A-!
I will never forget one sunny morning in the spring of 1972, a typical school day. I was eating my breakfast cereal, decked out in my plaid hip huggers and wide collar mango shirt, thinking I was pretty cool. The house was silent. I thought everyone was asleep, and then Mom and Dad burst in from the driveway, laughing and sparkling, giddy as kids fresh off a Ferris wheel.
“Where have you been?” I asked, with some suspicion.
“We got up early and went to see the sunrise.” Dad said.
“We watched it from the overpass on the highway” my mother could not stop laughing, “it was the highest place we could find!”
It is uncomfortable for a 17 year old boy to see his parents so much in love, but the vision imprints on your heart and reveals a potential for joy that teenage cynicism denies. For an instant my parent’s insane decision to uproot us and head west made at least a little sense. He wanted to be Curly, she wanted to be Laurey; they wanted the wide open spaces and possibilities so vast it hardly mattered whether they were actually realized. Oh, it was a beautiful morning.
Grand though it may be to reflect on my mother’s life through the lens of the twentieth century and the vast sweep of the Oklahoma plains, memories do not span decades or continents. Memories are like drops of spring rain; each one uniquely felt as it stings our skin and nourishes our soul. When I think of my mother, the little things come to mind first, and they bring the most heartfelt reactions.
Like the way she used to sit on the front steps in the summer with sweat pouring from her brow and she would say “Paulie, feel the back of my neck.” It was gross, feeling her clammy skin with the thin lines of wrinkle, but it was so incredibly intimate, touching my mother in such an obscure place.
Or the way she cut our toe nails. Mom made a production of it, sitting in the living couch while I propped up next to her, my leg draped over her lap, my feet in the strong light. It was part surgical, part ritual.
Mom had her characteristic sayings.
“Jesus Mary and Joseph give me strength,” which was always followed by a mammoth sigh.
“Little friend,” a gender neutral label for whoever we were dating.
“Rise and shine,” which she always shouted when we didn’t feel like doing either.
And of course, “It’s the easiest thing,” which usually described a meal fabricated from boxes of frozen food and a brave head of iceberg lettuce cut into six defiant wedges and drenched in a bottle of Russian Dressing.
Mom wasn’t much of a cook, but her shortcomings in that department became a kind of personal style in itself. Her Tater Tot casserole was famously bad; crispy to a fault on top, covering god only knows what mush loitered below. Fortunately, we believed in a benevolent God and so we remained ignorant of what was actually underneath.
No recipe was allowed to be followed as prescribed and Mom always seemed surprised when a delicacy she had enjoyed at someone’s house didn’t taste quite the same after she substituted canned asparagus for fresh, skimmed milk for cream and left out the three spices she couldn’t find in her cupboard.
For all her cooking foibles, Mom’s food never lacked in devotion. I will never witness another apple cut into such thin slices of love as the ones my mother carved for me when I came home for school lunches. Nor will I ever dance with the same grace I mustered during those same periods when, after lunch, she taught me the box step in the kitchen while “Shall We Dance” played on the trusty Magnavox.
After 84 years we all come to realize that it is the little things that have mattered most. The little things stick. Mom never taught math or sold real estate or installed cable or designed hospitals or ran a school. Her children do those things. Her accomplishments are not measured in material goods she made, rather they are measured in the lives of the thirty direct descendents she nourished and nurtured on this earth. She enabled us, through diligence and devotion, to be the best we could be, and that is quite an accomplishment on her part.
Each of us here has our own memories of Pat Fallon, and each of us will find our own path through our grief. Sometimes we will share it, just as we are now, trading stories of how Pat influenced our lives. Sometimes our grief will come from places we cannot anticipate. Last Saturday night, the day after Mom died, I had a friend over for dinner and decided to make chicken salad with grapes and walnuts. Only when I was carefully cutting the white grapes in half, to release their flavor, did I remember that Mom used to make that salad. And there is the grief that will only emerge over time, when a situation triggers a memory and allows Pat to linger in our hearts for many years to come.
Our time of reflection and remembrance began when Mom entered hospice. Her sister Fran and the other nuns in Albany have added Pat to their daily prayers, Mom’s granddaughter Abby is lighting candles for her in the major cathedrals of Europe as Abby backpacks the Continent, and many, many people are remembering Pat by supporting hospice and the remarkable care she received there in her final days.
But Mom would never be one to leave us in a lurch and I believe, even now she is guiding us in our grief. There was a time when my Mom and my Dad may have fancied themselves as Laurey and Curly from Oklahoma, but we all know that the Broadway couple they most emulated were Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, the tragic but eternal lovers from Carousel. I have never witnessed a love as deep, or as dysfunctional, as the love my parents shared. They were a couple destined for eternity who wore each other out on a daily basis. Fortunately for both of them, their day-to-day existence is behind them and eternity lay ahead like a vast and blissful plain. As Mom lay in her hospice bed she worried aloud whether she would cross over alone or whether Dad would be there, waiting for her on the other side. We reassured her that he would, and I believe he was there to meet her. They are together again, this time for good, this time forever.
And so the ending is pretty much like that classic musical. Billy redeems himself in the afterlife. Julie survives him and raises their daughter in dignity and grace. All strife ends. All hopes are realized.
Even in death, Moms philosophy is valid. She continues to teach us well.
“When you walk through a storm hold your chin up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm is a golden sky
With the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on, through the wind
Walk on, through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk, on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.
You’ll never walk alone.”