My mother’s only sister, Jane, died ten days ago, and this past weekend, her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews came back to our hometown for her funeral. Gathered in the vestibule of St. Mary’s Church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, we stared at the slide show of old photos and pored over newspaper clippings arranged on tables. Jane as a kid, the youngest of four, the last of the “Finnerty kids” to go. Jane and Barney as young marrieds, so good-looking, all smiles and optimism. Later, during the hectic years, as parents raising four of their own and as owners of the town’s only cab company. Jane as prize-winner, for bridge at the Elks, for golf at South Hills.
The “Finnerty kids”—Mary, Tom, Owen, and Jane—grew up in Fond du Lac during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Their dad was a flamboyant saloon-keeper who lived in and out of the house until he keeled over in the middle of Main Street, dead at 43 from cirrhosis of the liver. Mary, my mother and the oldest, saw him for the alcoholic he was and never forgave him for the humiliation he caused her. Her siblings loved to tell colorful stories about the saloon and his charms. but Mary never did. She knew too much—she was confidante to her pretty German mother and also her surrogate. From the age of 10, Mary minded her siblings, cooked their meals, and cleaned their clothes while her mother worked two jobs.
“My sister and brothers thought it was fun to stay up past midnight and sneak down the back stairs of our latest walk-up apartment,” she said. “They giggled and whispered to each other as we lugged our bags, bolting on the overdue rent. Afterward, only I got to stay up and watch my mother cry.”
Interesting then that both sisters named a son after their father, and both took excessive pride in calling themselves “Irish,” with no mention of their 50% German blood. Both of them married German-Americans, too, nice guys, quiet responsible family men. Denied the chance to go to college themselves, the sisters pushed their kids hard: Not going to college was never offered as an option; all seven of us went; all of us became accomplished professionals.
We had it easy, compared to our mothers. Here’s to you, Aunt Jane—to your strength, your drive, and your unfailing support for all of us. We’ll miss you.