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It’s February 2, 2019. Exactly 112 years ago, my mother, Mary Glynn O’Neill was born on this day. I’ve never needed the mnemonic device of associating Ground Hog Day with her birth date to remember it. That’s because she left me with a permanent memory of one of the gentlest, kindest, and most remarkable humans I’ve ever met. She also proved later in life to be incredibly strong and resilient as you will learn.
I realize most people, if they are lucky, have fond and revered memories of their mothers. It’s the natural order of things. How can you not have such thoughts and feelings for the person who carried you in her womb, birthed you, nourished you and nurtured you throughout her natural life? Thanks, Mom, for all you did for my siblings and me.
Mary O’Neill was a mama’s girl who lived at home and taught school well past the time when her siblings and contemporaries had married and started a family. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing when she met Paul Daniel Davey, they both knew they had found their soul mate. They dated until dad finished law school and then got married.
For reasons never explained, the newlyweds lived with my namesake grandpa, Bernard J. (Barney) O’Neill and Margaret Schaeffer O’Neill. It might have been money, or maybe grandma insisted. I grew up in the same house and can’t imagine how adult couples lived there in harmony.
Grandpa Barney died before any of his Davey grandchildren were born. By that time, Paul and Mary had moved out to a home of their own only to be pulled back to the O’Neill family home, which B.J. and Maggie had built. They resettled there so they could take care of grandma who was in declining health. I have very vague memories as a toddler of helping her button the bottom buttons on her long dress. That’s about it.
Even though Mary O’Neill was a pint-sized five-foot-one-half-inches, she was a gifted athlete. She was the women’s tennis champion of her Alton, Illinois hometown who took on and defeated men and women on the court. She swam the backstroke on the University of Illinois swim team.
Besides her athletic prowess, Mary was a gifted artist and musician. She was equally adept at painting in oils, pastels, and watercolors. One of her works hung in the St. Louis Art Museum for a spell.
She could play the piano by ear. Hum a few notes, and she’d start playing the melody of a tune she had never heard. I saw her do it many times in our parlor and at Scout meetings and school and church functions at St. Mary’s where we worshiped and learned.
Her greatest attribute and gift to her children was unconditional love. She had that in abundance and gave it freely to her offspring and to many of the grade school (mostly second grade) kids she taught for years. While most of her teacher colleagues did all they could to avoid a turn at schooling a class of students inappropriately termed as EMH (educable mentally handicapped), she volunteered.
She knew those early year kids needed love. It broke her heart to see some of the poorest come to school having eaten popcorn or nothing for breakfast.
That’s who she was — a gentle spirit with an enormous capacity for giving love unconditionally. I’m not saying she didn’t have her faults because I know she did. But whatever they were, her kindness and generosity and loving temperament outshone her shortcomings. It was apparent among my friends and cousins (of whom I have many of both) that they saw and felt the same thing from her. Some were amazed and nearly craved it.
In some cases, I can now see what I took for granted was treated as something special by others. In looking back, I understand how those who never experienced love and acceptance subtly given with nothing expected in return liked being in her presence. That was her gift. I am sure because she was so humble and unassuming, she was never aware of the gift she was giving. It’s just part of who she was and perhaps why what she gave was so powerful.
After marriage, Mary retired from school teaching to raise a family. Although she and Paul got a late start, it did not stop them from having a bunch of kids. Including an older sister who only lived a few days after birth, they had seven kids in nine years. Imagine spending a decade pregnant and up to your eyeballs in diapers and formula.
What’s remarkable is she was 41-years old when I was born, and I have two younger brothers. Who do you know these days that has a family of six or more kids, much less all packed into only nine years between the oldest and youngest?
Here’s where the strength and resilience about Mary Davey come into the picture. Her beloved husband, Paul, it turns out, had skin cancer. With today’s medical advancements, he might have had a chance to beat it. But in 1956, odds were against them. So, with heavy hearts, these two did what they could for two years to treat him and hide from the kids what was going on.
Paul’s law practice, which was the sole source of income for the family, took a big hit when he was too sick to finish available work and scout for new business. He’d gone from making interest-only payments to skipping payments on our house without telling her. The realization of the dire circumstances beyond his control that he was leaving her and his family in must have been devastating for him.
On December 28, 1958, Paul succumbed to cancer. I was only ten; my youngest brother was just eight. It was a thundering, life-changing, shock-you-to-the-core event for my siblings and me. None of us younger kids had any idea it was coming. For sure, none of us had any idea on what would happen next or how to cope with our loss. I think back about her and wonder how does one balance and compartmentalize raising six kids while helping your life and soul mate slip off the mortal coil? That’s freaking incredibly, impossibly hard for me to imagine much less think it was my mom’s reality.
And, what the eff do you do now? Her worry about how to keep the house and feed her kids must have been off the charts! Although she hadn’t taught a day in nearly two decades, Mary found a job opening to teach school again. With her Paul in the grave only a week or so, she started teaching school in the second semester that began right after Christmas. Whatever a giant shock to the system all this was for us kids, it must have been multiplied ten times for her.
I can only imagine how much unbelievable courage, grit, and determination it took for her to manage all this — remembering how to teach again — worrying about six latch-key kids suddenly. How did she deal with waking to the reality there was no money, no life insurance, and the irony of a deceased lawyer husband without a will? Despite it all and through the grace of others, especially family members, we stayed together and kept living in our house. To her credit, and with a grit of our own, she managed to get us all grown and successful.
How did you do it, momma? You amaze me to this day about what reserves you had for getting through tough, challenging situations few people ever face. Despite it all, you never lost your wellspring of love and your enormous capacity to share it with your children and their friends, your family, and your students.
You gave me a love of art, nature, music, science, and words. You made me curious about almost everything. Most of all, you gave me unconditional love. I am forever grateful for these beautiful gifts. No amount of money or prestige could ever come close to them in what is a real value. And so, on this day of your birth, I honor and remember you. As you told us every night, “Sleep with the angels,” dear momma.