By Paul McMullen
While the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic dominated pop culture last month, my sentiments steered toward more personal milestones.
March marked 25 years since my father’s death; now we close in on the 15th anniversary of my mother’s passing. It was no small irony that she left this earth in 1997 on Father’s Day. What follows is not a slam at my Dad, but admiration for his good judgment in finding a great partner.
Miriam Larkin McMullen was the inaugural winner of Boy Scout Troop 188’s Mother of the Year. She reared five sons and two daughters, and carried an eighth child, which she lost during pregnancy. Her faith in the face of every challenge resonates more than a plaque that merely acknowledged her fertility.
In the autumn of 1961, her six children ranged from grade 9 at Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington to grade 1 at St. Rose of Lima School in Brooklyn. (My mother would birth one more child three years later – at age 44.) She also had a husband a half a continent away, furthering his military career.
We were proud that dad was attending U.S. Army “war college” in Kansas, but the gossips must have had a field day, since Fort Leavenworth also houses a federal penitentiary.
It took mighty doses of devotion, energy and patience for one parent to ride herd over all of that teen angst and little-boy anxiety – never mind seeing to the basics of food, clothing and shelter.
My head shook at a Democratic Party strategist describing Ann Romney, who raised five sons, as having “never worked a day in her life” – and again remembering that my Mom enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and went to Europe before she became a cook, laundress, seamstress and child psychologist.
In the early 1970s, my father shipped out for a final overseas tour of duty, which secured my parents’ retirement. When he was in South Korea, my mother’s brood ranged from age 10 to 27, most out on their own. Her patience continued to be tested, but she finally exhaled and let her playful side show.
The house had quieted, unless I was turning up the stereo to 11. Once I was singing along to a Grateful Dead tune, how “On the day that I was born, Daddy sat down and cried.” Mom came around the corner, and said, “No, he didn’t.” She winced at some of my music, but when the Moody Blues were on the turntable, said it wasn’t necessary to turn down the volume.
She was younger then than I am now. Those memories make it easier to think of her as the gorgeous, gutsy young woman in her 1938 high school graduation portrait, shown on this page.
It is no coincidence that four of my siblings are career educators. The best teachers nurture, and they learned by osmosis.
Mom could also write. During her wake, we discovered that she had taken to keeping a journal. In the last autumn of her life, this is what she penned after visiting my father’s headstone at the Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Crownsville:
“I will never forget the sight. The night before Veteran’s Day, they put the American flag at every grave, and then it snowed. Nowhere could you see a footprint, only the flags above the snow. I’m glad we went.”
Paul McMullen is the managing editor of the Catholic Review.