I Remember “Mama”
My mother, lovingly called Mama by the children in our family, often takes pen to paper in order to express her feelings, to advocate for the helpless, to instill hope, and to challenge my six brothers and me to put our faith and compassion into action. I, on the other hand, am putting my fingers to a keyboard. Every day, I am determined to remember Mama with her incredible spirit of giving and allowing her example to guide me on this journey we call life. When people find a quality in me that remind them of Mama, I am honored and, at the same time, challenged to live my life with the same grace, gusto, and dedication.
Not a holiday or family gathering passes by that does not include echoes in the room from young and old, accompanied by smiles and laughter, which start off with: “Do you remember the day Mama…?” I often think that God gave our Mama the gift of love and every time I hear someone say “I Remember Mama,” He is telling me and all in the room: “Stop and listen, someone truly great is in your presence!”
Growing up, Mama would remind my brothers and me that the greatest gift we could give her was to love each other. We were encouraged to avoid making rash judgments that are fixed and unchangeable, and to see the other sibling’s point of view. I often tell those I serve that I feel the greatest virtue is the gift of empathy because when you walk in someone else’s shoes you are guided to make wiser decisions. This feeling, no doubt, was instilled by our mother. I am happy to say her wish came true because my best friends in life are my brothers, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them. I suffer with them when they struggle and experience disappointments, and rejoice with them when they succeed.
Although we certainly had a great role model in Mama, I don’t want you to think we grew up with wings, singing gospel tunes from the cradle. Mama surely had her struggles with a gang of 6 boys and one tomboyish girl. We all had our moments. I am reminded by Mama that she longed for a daughter, but my brothers reminded me that with each pregnancy they huddled together, channeling testosterone in the air with the hope that Mama didn’t need the frilly bonnet she tucked away in her suitcase en route to the hospital. Thank goodness, my brothers’ appeal to the powers of the universe was misinterpreted and the rest is history. As you may have guessed, Mama named me Mary after Christ’s mother; the one she honors every day and whom I feel she seeks as a role model for her every decision. I longed for a sister to come into the mix but to no avail, with my older brothers cheering and parading around my bed as all three younger siblings came out with the Y chromosome. It took some time for me to grow on the big brothers. I visited the Emergency Room on a regular basis…“ER report states sister gets hit with pliers because she didn’t duck quickly enough when brothers were tossing it to open newspaper wire and getting ready for daily delivery…ER report notes sister’s arms didn’t move quickly enough when she was recruited to become a human wheelbarrow…ER report mentions sister didn’t jump fast enough when golf club swing was in full motion.” Needless to say, the gift of athleticism passed me by and I have the scars to confirm that fact. My younger brothers and I hear stories about our older siblings, Dan and Ray, sticking my Grandma’s cherished cat in the freezer to cool him off on a steamy summer day. The only saving grace was the furry friend’s tail sticking outside the freezer door, just in time for Grandma to intervene. And we all remember the day when my brother Patrick casually mentioned he was tired and needed to lay on the field after a neighborhood football game. Hours later, we found him unable to move because he fractured his neck and didn’t want anyone to know.
I stand back in awe of Mama, who dealt with crisis after crisis with remarkable resolve and unmatched dedication. My two younger brothers, Mick and Kevin, are guiding us from the heavens. Mick died at 7 months of age from a case of pneumonia (later linked to a complication of cystic fibrosis). Mama tells us how heartbreaking it was to be asked to leave the hospital at the end of the day, as Mick’s hospitalization took place during a time in history when families were not allowed to stay with loved ones overnight. Mick died without Mama’s arms around him that night, but he lives close to her heart each and every day. Kevin also died from complications of cystic fibrosis at the age of 20, but only after Mama had provided him with so much love that would spill over the Grand Canyon. Kevin’s exemplary life was so admired by the doctors and nurses at the University of Chicago that when he gave his last breath, they were all with him, kneeling at his bedside. Despite countless hospitalizations, Mama never left Kevin’s side. My brother Patrick was right there beside Mama and is our “go to” guy; a hero to all of us, including his wife and four girls (ahh….I channeled estrogen and XX chromosomes each time I found out my sister-in-law was pregnant!). My older brother, Ray, developed Stevens-Johnson’s disease and went into a coma after he was mistakenly given a dose of penicillin he was allergic to while in hospital at the age of 2. Today, he marvels all of us with his strength and acceptance of challenges that come his way without complaint; always seeing the rainbow and never the storm. Jay, who was known for fishing with a stick at his wishing lake (the neighborhood mud puddle), is the most generous of all; the brother who loves and gives to anyone who asks…even strangers in need. He got this trait from Mama. Dan, the eldest, has dedicated his entire life advocating for those in need and taking over as the leader of the band when my Dad passed away. My Dad died with a twinkle in his Irish eyes, starting off his last day on Earth telling me he was shaving and getting ready for his “girlfriend” to walk in the door (Mom was returning from a medical visit with my aunt). It was an incredible gift for my brothers and me; knowing Dad cherished our mother in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and through all the ups and downs.
I often ask how Mama does it. Life has not been easy for her. In fact, it has been a roller coaster of challenges, heartaches, and struggles. But for Mama these are pathways that lead to faith, hope, and love. I see Mama’s face when I welcome a single refugee mother with children at her side, her husband missing or killed in a war torn country. I think of Mama when I see hope in that mother’s eyes and the strength in her walk. I remember Mama in that long winter that just won’t quit; I hear her voice telling me that everyday gives us opportunities to see the beauty, not just in the sun, but in the snowstorm. I look up to Mama when my faith is tested and my hope falters; listening to her reminds me that all things are possible with the belief in God.
I guess I may have answered my own question. Mama carries on gracefully because she believes each day is an opportunity to serve. In the same vein, I am called to serve as a Refugee Resettlement Director and grateful that I work for Catholic Charities since their mission reminds me of Mama’s: to see the promise of the rainbow at the end of the storm and to help those I serve overcome the storm and grasp the colors of hope and new beginnings. I am expected to bring the love of God to people of all faiths, cultures and beliefs. It is my responsibility to provide help and hope to those in need, regardless of whether the sun is shining or the storm clouds are rolling. On the days when it is difficult to see that rainbow, I close my eyes and remember Mama.
I can only hope that people will continue to see glimpses of Mama in me, just as they do in my brothers. When Mama walked through the door this St. Paddy’s Day with shamrock antennas, all the grandchildren and great grandchildren ran to her side with their smart phones ready to tape precious moments, such as Mama playing charades imitating a pirate walking the plank or a monkey at the zoo. On these occasions, I heard voices echoing, “Do you remember when Mama…” and felt God’s tap on my shoulder, reminding me to stop and listen because someone truly great was in my presence.
Submitted by:Mary Alessio-Director of Advancement Past Director of Refugee Resettlement