Ah, She Had the Luck o’ the Irish and Never Had Money nor Fame

March 19, 2010

For Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Culture is like a magnetic field, a patterned energy shaping history. It is invisible, even unsuspected, until a receiver sensitive enough to pick up its messages can give it a voice.
• Guy Davenport

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and all around the world, people will be celebrating with green beer and other stereotypically, commercially-imagined festivities. Not me. Today I’m celebrating my Grandma Wilkins—Mary Henrietta Riley—a hardworking and often-not-so-lucky Irishwoman. She was stern, she was fearful for us, and she loved her family and did not want to lose us.

My independent spirit tried her greatly, but she always loved me anyway. I put her story into the words of a song, a celebration of her tenacity, her resiliency, her hard work, and her faith:

Sweet Mary
Lyrics by W-O Z

Ah-h-h-h, she had the luck o’ the Irish
And never had money nor fame
Still she kept the faith till the day that she died
And never her God did she blame.

Now she needs a rollickin’ chorus
Of jolly folks singin’ her name.
Sweet Mary, Sweet Mary, Sweet Mary,
Without you, we’d not be the same.

Verse 1:
Her mother lay down in the churchyard
And left Mary a girl, only ten,
With three little sisters for raisin’
And a dream of what once might have been.

The little ones crowded around her
Cryin’ “We want our mother, not you,”
And Mary, Sweet Mary, prayed nightly,
Give me strength, Lord, I’ll be true to you.


Verse 2:
When Mary was twelve, she was struck by
Par-al-y-sis, flat in her bed.
She cried every day in frustration
O’er the orders that marched in her head.

Do this and do that and she couldn’t
As the little ones ran off to play,
Leavin’ Mary alone in the cottage
And all day to dear Jesus she’d pray.


Verse 3:
At twenty she married her Charlie
‘Cause she longed for a home of her own,
A place for her sisters and maybe
A baby or two when they’d grown.

But Charlie, he was a wild bronco,
A beer drinkin’, pool playin’ man.
Good-hearted, hard-workin’, but never
God-fearin’ as was in her plan.


Verse 4:
Three daughters they had, and a baby
Little Charlie, named after his dad
Who lived just a week before dyin’
And leaving them broken and sad.

A girl too they laid there beside him
And covered her up with cold sod,
But Mary, she stayed strong and faithful,
And never once laid blame on God.


Verse 5:
Her faith gave her hope and some comfort
That she’d see her dear children one day.
She talked to them nightly in heaven
Filled with sadness that they could not stay.

But Charlie cried out in frustration,
For no matter how hard that he tried,
Seemed like life took the things that he loved most
And God turned His back when he cried.


Verse 6:
A train hit her Charlie one eve-nin’,
Broke his back with its engine so cruel.
So Mary, Sweet Mary, worked daily,
Waitin’ tables and cleanin’ the school.

She wore out her legs, not her spirit,
For she prayed to her savior each night:
Dear Jesus, with you I can do this,
Keep my feet on the path that is right.


Verse 7:
In their fifties she lost her dear Charlie
Who lay down on the couch for a sleep
And never arose from his nappin’
To fulfill all the dreams still to keep.

So Mary went on, livin’ lonely
In the midst of her fam’ly and friends,
Stayin’ true to her course and believin’
In God’s blessings till her very end.


Finito, perhaps!

Grandma’s dream for my life was very different from my own. She would have been happy to see me safely married to a wealthy (preferably!) and hardworking man, surrounded by lots of children, never working outside the home, devoting my life to church and family. That would have been heaven on earth for her in her own life and it’s what she wanted for her daughters and grandaughters. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with her dream, I’ve always wanted more.

It can be difficult to sustain personal dreams of possibility if they conflict with familial expectations. What do you want for your life and what do you need to do to achieve your dreams?

To be adult means, among other things, to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and prospect. By accepting some definition as to who he is, usually on the basis of a function in an economy, a place in the sequence of generations, and a status in the structure of society, the adult is able to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.
• Erik Erikson, in Dan. P. McAdams (1993).
The Stories We Live by: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, p. 91


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