Obituary for My Mother

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

My mother, Kathleen, as a young woman. Photographer unknown.

An obituary cannot contain a life.

Words and pictures cannot contain a life.

Not even memories can contain a life. Each life is its own story and no one can know the full story of it except the one who lived it.

An obituary gives dates, organizations that a person may have belonged to, relatives who preceded them in death and those who remain behind to grieve. But it can’t define what happened between those beginning and ending dates, the service provided to those organizations or to others, the real relationships that were shared, or the fullness of being.

I can’t do that either, but I know that my mother was more than a few words and dates, so I decided to write my own obituary of her from my point-of-view. It, too, will fail to capture her essence. We all know our loved ones in different ways and the things that were important to me may not have been noticed by others and I know that I cannot know much of what she meant to my siblings, her friends, her townspeople, and others.

My mother was born Kathleen Townsend in 1925 in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, two years shy of a century after her great-grandfather settled there in the same year the city was founded. There are four generations beyond her who still count the town as home. From everything I know she loved her alcoholic father although she didn’t like it when he drank and she loved and admired her mother as much as I have loved and admired mine.

She grew up Catholic at a time when the parish priest’s word was law. She was throughout her life fiercely devout to the church. I remember often walking into the living room to find her sitting in the chair with her eyes closed and fingers on a rosary bead or saying a novena. When she prayed I don’t know that it was ever for herself. She prayed a lot for others who were less fortunate or might be in some kind of need, be it financially, spiritually, or emotionally.

A few short years after her birth the stock market crashed and my mother’s already poor family became even poorer. I recall stories of the children going to school in all seasons wearing ragged shoes with holes, having to huddle together in bed at night to stay warm in a cold, drafty house, and living with the shame of having to wear old and tattered clothes when other children were dressed in their best school finery. The family lived next to the railroad depot and often itinerant men would stop and ask for food. Her mother would always share what little they had and I know this example of Christian spirit impacted my mother as she was one of the most generous people I have ever known. Our family was comfortable although we never had much, but Mom always shared, too. She also gave back in other ways. I remember her taking care of the needs of several elderly women in our town–driving them to appointments, picking up their mail, taking them groceries, spending time with them when their families would not or could not visit. She loaned or gave money to others when she had little. When a neighbor had a fire the woman and her son moved in with us until their house was fixed. My Great-Aunt Leona lived with us, too, when she was ill. Friends and relatives could drop by any time to talk or ask for favors.

I know from her stories that my mother was shy and felt awkward as a youth. She may not have known it, but she was a beautiful young woman, a beautiful young mother, a beautiful middle-aged woman, and a beautiful old lady. The beauty emanated from within and shone through her physical being.

Mom had eight siblings and she loved each of them in their own ways. Like all siblings they might sometimes argue or not understand each other but they were all pretty close. My mother spent a lot of time with my Aunt (and godmother) Gen, Uncle Bergen, and especially with my spinster aunt, Avene, the eldest child in their clan. We would often drive across the border into Illinois to visit Marge and Bill, Evelyn and Harold, Phil and Ruth. About once a year we would see Ed and Fran from Milwaukee and occasionally my bachelor uncle, Lyle, would stop by; while he lived in Shullsburg we didn’t see him that much. Mom and Vene were the closest. Vene would join us every Sunday at noon for a big Sunday dinner and was always part of our holidays. She was like a second mother to us. My mother always believed that Avene was a “saint on earth” as she often said. She admired and loved her so much and missed her dearly after she passed. Mom was the youngest in their family and outlived them all.

She graduated from high school in 1942 during the middle of America’s involvement in World War II. After the war she met my father, Chuck Harty, a man whose picture she had previously admired as she thought he was incredibly handsome. She told me recently that she always thought he was handsome. The picture stayed with her throughout her life, even through her second marriage years later. Mom and Dad danced. They went to big band shows with Lawrence Welk, Bunny Berrigan and others. They danced a lot. She often went to a place called The Palace in Galena, Illinois. From what she told me she used to love to dance. One of my favorite memories of her is that of her kicking up her heels and dancing crazily in the basement as Aunt Leona pounded out “Turkey in the Straw” on the piano.

My dad and mom had a whirlwind romance. They were engaged within a few months after they started to date and were married shortly after that. She loved him dearly. From what I understand (I didn’t witness it as he died when I was two) they had their share of fights, too. He would go for days without talking to her when he was angry. Still she stood by him and I believe she loved him until the day she died. His picture hung on the wall where she could see it from her bed at the end.

They had five children. The oldest, Loras, was born with spina bifada at a time when there was nothing doctors could do about it. He lived to be about two and a half years before he passed away and that was one of the great tragedies of my mother’s life. She carried the heaviness of his painful life and his death with her throughout the rest of her years. She talked about him often as I was growing up, about what a beautiful baby he was, and how he endured his suffering with such grace. She told about how she walked in on him shortly before his death and saw a beatific smile and knew that he was at the end and that he would be at peace with God. His picture also hung on the wall where she could see it at the end.

The other four of us were born after Loras had already lived and died.

When I was two my father died of a massive heart attack. My mother was left in her mid-30s with four children ranging in age from two to eight. I was the youngest. She made a conscious decision not to date anyone else the entire time we were growing up because she didn’t want any other man telling her how to raise her children. It was her job–housewife and mother. It was her career. It was what she devoted her life to and what she did as well as she could. When my father died we received government checks which my mother used to feed, clothe, and house us. He had worked for the government and had served in the war so she got Social Security, Civil Service, and Veterans’ benefits. She was frugal and managed to buy a house and pay for it in about ten years or so. We never had a lot but we had what we needed and a little bit more.

Most importantly, we had love. While Mom didn’t always know how to deal with all of her children she did the best she could with the tools she had and she loved all of us unconditionally. She didn’t always know how to show it, but I think we always knew that she loved us and that she was proud of us. I know we all failed her in various ways and yet I know also that she was proud of every one of us for our essence. She saw beyond the surface flaws. She focused on our successes, on who we were deep in our souls, and loved us all. She endured while we all went through those phases where friends are more important than family. She withstood that period when children realize their parents aren’t perfect and remove them from their pedestals. She loved us even as we made the mistakes young people make when they are growing up (and plenty of them as adults as well). She accepted us even though she was disappointed that none of us followed the teachings of her church. While she never explicitly said it I believe that she felt this was her failing as a mother, that she must have done something wrong in how she raised us. But while we may not have followed in the faith we all learned morality from her. I think we turned out to be good people. We all know right from wrong and we try to live ethical lives of meaning. I believe she succeeded as a mother and I think that she knew she had instilled in us a clear understanding of right and wrong.

Mom was tough. She survived several hardships in her life. As an elderly woman she survived falling down a set of stairs and breaking her hip, another fall where she lay for three days with no food, water, or medicine. She survived months after all of us thought she had maybe a couple weeks left to live. She lived for more than two years after she was given last rites. At the end her mind was almost gone. The woman who used to start every day with the newspaper and crossword puzzle was not able to even recognize the people around her much of the time. She was likely in pain but also likely refused to admit it because she truly believed that suffering was a gift and part of life and something that a person must bear and offer up to God.

I am missing so much here.

There were the short trips to the drive-in over in Benton for ice cream treats, picnics, candy treats hiding under plates at dinner every so often, her Yahtzee obsession, family gatherings, her dedication to elderly relatives, waking up together to watch thunderstorms in the middle of the night, long conversations in the living room, sitting under the stars out in the front yard while pondering the enormity of the universe . . . This is a never-ending list. My memory cannot begin to contain all that it should.

Even this summary of my mother’s life is simply that–a summary. It doesn’t begin to capture her smile, her insecurities, her dedication to her family, her laughter (with big snorts when she really got going), the breadth of her generosity of spirit, her deep spirituality, and more. Like all of us she wasn’t a perfect person, but she did her best to live her life authentically and she did her best to not just believe the doctrine of her church but to live it. She gave me life and then taught me how to live it right. I am glad that she is at peace after several years of winding down and losing strength and I am glad that while she lost her physical strength and mental acuity that she never lost her spirit. I am glad that whatever suffering there was is now ended and it all ended very peacefully. And I know that she will live on in the actions of others whose lives were impacted by her living. Her legacy will be in the kind acts of others who learned the true meaning of love from her.

The other thing an obituary can’t contain and that I can’t capture in a few sentences or paragraphs is the depth of my own sorrow. Regardless of the time I had to prepare for it one can never be fully prepared to lose a parent. I will miss her deeply and love her always and that deep, deep love also cannot be contained by anything.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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4 Responses to Obituary for My Mother

  1. Sam says:

    Callen,

    So sorry for the loss of your mother. I know from reading your frequent posts of her that she was very special to you. This is also evident in your eloquent and touching obituary.
    And yes, no matter how long you know it is inevitable, it doesn’t make it any easier at the end.
    Know we are thinking of you and Brian and wishing you peace through your grief.
    Love, Samgela

  2. keve2109 says:

    Deepest condolences, Callen. What a heroic, lovely mother, with a huge heart! And you render her so beautifully, straight from your own truest depths. She evidently did a fine job raising you. I lost my mother shortly after moving back to Milwaukee, in 2009. I know your feeling. Thanks, and be strong. – Kevin

  3. Bob Gile says:

    Thank You Callen. What a Great tribute to your Mother. I can remember a lot of things you mention in your Mom’s obituary.

  4. Angela Wesely-Burns says:

    Callen, what a lovely tribute to your mother. You are a shining example of the ideals your mother instilled in you. You are her legacy and we are all grateful for that. Wishing you peace and comfort.

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