On this Feast of the Holy Family I brought this symbol of family that I made some years back. It depicts four members who are holding hands and in doing so they create four hearts and also a circle that forms a candle-holder. The symbolism is meant to convey that where there is unity there is love and where there is love there is light. In fact only where there is love are people capable of holding the light for each other.
I would like to share with you a few thoughts in relation to my own experience of family. In doing so I feel like the priest who began his homily by telling the people he had a confession to make, that in fact he had spent the best years of his life in the arms of another man’s wife. He was becoming forgetful and only later told them that it was his mother he was talking about. It was just as well he remembered! My mother departed this life 18 years ago this weekend at the age of 84. She died in one millennium and was buried in another. Her passing spanned the new and the old. It was from her that I had a rather rich and varied experience of family life. She was born in 1916 just after the Rising and was the eldest of 8, 7 girls and 1 boy. Twin girls and the boy died very young leaving 5 girls, only two of whom went on to have children. My mother was engaged 9 times, and each time something would crop up prevent the marriage. When I reflect on my chances of my being here they were quite slim. At 38 she met my father and was married with 3 months. Because of age, and nearly having died giving birth to me, she never had any more children.
I never heard a cross word between my parents in those early years and I was privileged to see them being close and affectionate with plenty of kissing and cuddling in a way that so many children never get to witness. On my bedroom wall was a picture of the Holy Family, Jesus walking between Mary and Joseph, holding the hand of each. That was very real to me, because it was my experience of family life just then. I grew up feeling secure n the strength of their relationship and the fact that there was hardship and poverty didn’t seem to matter all that much. Their relationship was the foundation for my sense of security and belonging to this very day, I am still very much aware of it, especially when I hit a difficult patch and it’s like a strength that I can draw on to help get me to the other side.
That security was shattered when at 11 my father had a heart attack and died suddenly. The family dynamic had changed dramatically to being an only child with a single, mother with a broken heart. That was a difficult time where we tried to avoid upsetting each other by talking about my dad and that created a certain barrier between us. Looking back it was quite unwise and we were both simply afraid of our own emotions. During those years she gave me great freedom and responsibility and I think I had much more than if my dad had been alive. I am eternally grateful that she never tried to make me a substitute for my father and neither did she try to control or influence what I was going to do with my life in any way. Not only did she give me roots but she also gave me wings, that to this day I have used to the full.
After 9 years as a widow she remarried, probably out of a sense of loneliness, and it was also the time when I was entering the seminary at Maynooth. She met her partner through the Knock Marriage Bureau and he was from Tipperary. Again the family dynamic changed to now having a stepfather who was widowed with 3 children. I thought first they were getting on fine until my mother’s health began to break down with stress related illnesses. First it was her eyesight where she lost one eye and then the other went and for a time she was completely blind before having a miraculous recovery. A few years later she suffered a stroke, a heart attack and Meningitis. This was when she finally admitted that she had been enduring domestic violence and that he had been beating her up ever since they got married. He was a very insecure individual, and, for reasons I could never figure, was so jealous towards me that on two occasions he tried to murder me and I was lucky to escape with my life.
It was her final bout of illness, and close shave with death, that made my mother wake up and realize she had had enough. She got the courage to talk about what had been happening and that she needed to get out of the marriage. That was far from being an easy time for her when he left and went to live close by. He was a street angel and a house devil so to others he could come across as sweet as pie and sell a sob sob story about how badly he had been wronged. Unfortunately people buy into those kind of stories and act out of prejudice with the result many neighbors stopped talking and gave my mum the cold shoulder.
So the family dynamic for me had changed yet again to now dealing with a separated mother and an estranged step-father with 3 siblings in the background. Strange to say during those final 20 years of my mother’s life I never once heard her mention feeling lonely. I think the overwhelming relief of being free of an abusive, controlling relationship was what sustained her. Sometime later I was ordained and after 10 years in Kilmore Quay my mother came to live there where in the last three years her health began to fail and I needed to take on a caring role. Unfortunately, being on my own, I had no one to share the workload with. I never wanted to put her into a nursing home but eventually she realized she needed to be there herself. Remarkably her months in the home were as happy as I have ever seen her where she finished more or less as she had started. After so many romances in early life she fell madly in love with one of the residents who was from her own street in Wexford and was just like her father that she adored. The love was quite mutual and while visiting I often felt I was playing gooseberry. I remember one time going to visit when the two of them were alone in the TV room, holding hands and watching Ireland playing England in a rugby match. It was tough and tumble and she turned to her companion and said, ‘Larry, why does the referee not give them a ball each so they wouldn’t have to fight so much over the one.’
They say that it only takes a moment to be loved a whole life through and it was during those months of feeling loved that my mother became light and witty where it was obvious that she had shed so many layers of sadness and suffering that had been weighing her down. She died literally with a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, which just goes to show that it’s never too late to start living, and there’s no excuse to not have some fun.