I wrote this about my Mom a few years ago. I want the world to know what a wonderful woman she was, and how she handled the greatest trial of her life. She did it with grace and grit.
Her name was Virginia. She was raised in a home where mom and dad stayed together. It was all she had ever known. The dream of (1.) getting married, (2.) having kids, and (3.) growing old together with her man was not only normal, but expected and even planned upon. Her life revolved around the sure expectation that she would find the right man, pledge herself to him in mutual commitment, raise a family with him, enjoy her grandkids with him, and be buried next to him.
How differently things turned out. The first part worked out fine. She grew up to be a beautiful, intelligent, well-liked woman, and she found a wonderful man. His name was Don. A handsome, athletic, successful corporate salesman with a great sense of humor. He was even willing to convert to Roman Catholicism to marry her. “A marriage blessed by God himself” she used to tell us kids. She was an October bride. The honeymoon was spent at Yosemite in California. The pictures remain to this day, and the radiance of that gorgeous place is rivaled only by my mother’s glowing countenance. What more could a woman ask for? Children! That’s what. And they came in bushels. Michael in February of ’59, Shawn in February of ’60, Thomas in June of 61, Colleen in December of ’62, and Lisa in June of ’65. Five kids in 6 ½ years. She reveled in her motherhood, and was a model of mothering to those five lucky kids. And so, the second part of her dream came true.
And so we come to the third part. You know, that corny business about growing old together. Raising a family, enjoying grandkids and retirement. Sitting on the boat watching the sun go down together. A walk down the street holding hands the way old lovers do. The pull-my-finger pranks with the little ones. A complete circle of warmth and love. The way it should be, the way it could have been.
It was not to be.
I can remember when I was seven, we would wait for dad at the end of our street at 5:30 each day, and he would stop and let us all in his shiny company car. He would drive us the 200 feet to our house and we would all compete for his attention, telling him about the day’s activity, the fights, the laughs and all the things so important to elementary school kids. He stopped coming home every night when I was eight. He was a traveling salesman, and his job kept him away sometimes. But it was never more than a night or two. Lots of husbands had to do that. Nothing to worry about. But his absences increased to a week at a time, and something was said about dad being sick, something about kidneys and dialysis. It was right around then that she began to notice some of his clothes missing.
She was not suspicious by nature. She had no reason to be. She believed what people said because she would never lie, why would other people? Still, she found it strange that Don had a marvelous tan when he had been so sick. When she got up enough nerve to ask him about it, he told her that the hospital had a sun porch. She felt ashamed to have asked.
Time passed, and now the family no longer went on the traditional two week vacation to Mullett Lake in upper Michigan. Don was gone more and more, and Virginia began to check on some inconsistencies in his stories. What she found was devastating. Don was living with another woman. The affair had been going on for years. She would have gladly taken him back, but he wanted out of the marriage. When Michigan adopted no-fault divorce, he divorced her, and left her with child support but no alimony while he continued his new life.
She would have to work now. She had been the best secretary at the Railroad office before she got married. But the damage done to a woman who has been rejected by her husband is like a bomb blast. An empty crater is left, and recovery is rarely complete. Her self-confidence was severely damaged. After fifteen years out of the work force, her skills had eroded. Technology had also made some of her skills obsolete. But Virginia’s concern was for us, her kids. She would do anything necessary to make our lives as normal as possible, and if that meant her own personal needs were left unfulfilled, so be it.
The number of “Virginias” in this nation is growing at an alarming rate. My mom was one of the first, before divorce really exploded in the seventies. She was on completely alien territory, and she was exposed to not only rejection from her husband, but the reproach of an entire society. The divorcee. Insult to injury.
So, how does a single mom do it? How does she manage to keep a house together? How does she impart lasting values into her teenage children without a man around?
First of all, she accepted the situation. She cried, she hurt, and she grieved, but she accepted it. She didn’t seek solace in drugs, or alcohol. She didn’t rebound into the arms of another man (although she had offers), and she didn’t curse God. She took life as it was, and determined to make the best of a terrible situation.
Her devotion to God and church attendance remained unchanged. We went to church every Sunday and I even attended catechism on Tuesday nights until I was a sophomore in high school. It was one of the things in our lives that remained a constant. We were in church every Sunday even though we were going through traumatic changes in our home. The message from my mother was clear: our problems weren’t God’s fault, and we will honor Him no matter what.
She never got bitter. The pain she felt remained her own pain, and she never tried to make us hate our father. I have known other divorced mothers who make it their goal to destroy the reputation of the children’s father. This didn’t happen in our home. When my dad would show up for his monthly visit, we would swarm him with love and affection, because we were unaware of his faults. She showed my father respect, and our relationship with him was damaged only by his actions, not by her words. Of all the things my mother did, this may be the most remarkable.
She was a light-hearted person, and she remained so even in her trials. She loved to laugh. I remember that my sister and I could make her laugh uncontrollably with our crazy, stream-of-consciousness humor, and she indulged us by asking us to do different characters and voices for her and her friends. We may have been a broken home, but we sure laughed a lot. We put the “fun” in “dysfunctional”. She never lost her sense of humor, and that made a major difference as we grew up in a single parent home.
She welcomed our friends into our home. She loved company, and it was not unusual to have our house full of teenagers. We may not have had much in the refrigerator, but ours was an open home. My friends all loved her, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Brennan, you’ve got the coolest mom”. My cousins would all confide in me “I would never say this to anyone else, but your mom was always my favorite aunt”. On summer nights, we would hang out on our porch, in the kitchen, by the pool, or in the driveway and talk and eat popcorn. We became the home away from home for a lot of kids.
She loved to sing. She had a sweet soft voice and would sing “Doe, a deer”, “Mares eat oats”, “Irish Lullaby”, and a whole repertoire of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits. She loved the old classic movies, especially the musicals, and would sing those cheesy old songs until we loved them too. I can’t watch an old movie without thinking of my mom.
She tried to keep things as normal as possible after my dad left. She would still have company on Christmas Eve, still invite my dad’s parents over, still go to family events together, and still go to our various activities. She was at every hockey game my brother and I ever played, and was there when I got mashed into the boards and was unconscious with a concussion. She was there for my sisters’ gymnastic events, dance recitals, and glee club events. She was there at my 12th grade talent show when my tongue-in–cheek punk band won first place. She didn’t just sit at home and feel sorry for herself, she stayed involved with life.
My mother’s most lasting achievement is undoubtedly her children. She raised us in a very difficult environment, yet she managed to transfer most of her own values and convictions to us. All of my married siblings are in solid marriages, and the marriage commitment is one they take very seriously. My siblings are also some of the best parents I know, and they are willing to sacrifice greatly for their children like my mother did. I can speak for all of Virginia’s kids when I say that we were taught by word and example to be honest, giving, trustworthy, hard working and accepting of others. The legacy of a single mother can be one of tremendous integrity and honor. The bible says that the children of a virtuous woman will rise up and call her blessed. All five of us are united in saying that Virginia Margaret Brennan is a blessed woman, and we follow her example every day.