Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Saturday, July 14, 2012


My mother-in-law, Eileen Keane, would have been 89 today.  She was a strange and remarkable  woman who had a life with more than her share of tragedy.  Born to a well-to-do father and a neurotic mother, Eileen's father died young of a heart attack.  Her despondent mother committed suicide when she was nine and Eileen was left to be raised by an aunt and uncle.  The uncle, Frank, whom Kitty always knew as Grandpa, was a lovable character (emphasis on "character") who never met a racing horse he didn't like.

     At various times, Frank had been in vaudeville, owned a used car dealership, owned a restaurant, and (I'm given to understand) was known to be acquainted with some fairly shady characters.  Eileen's aunt was a manic-depressive who had to be institutionalized at times.  Both of them loved Eileen beyond words, but they provided her with an uncertain childhood.  Frank would pry the diamonds off his wife's rings and stash them under the floorboards in preparation for the days when the ponies ran bad.

     World War II came along and Eileen fell in love and had gotten engaged, only to have her fiance killed in the war.  Later, Kitty's father started dating her and asked her to marry him.  Eileen put him off by saying she would marry him once the war was over.  And damned if the war didn't end a few weeks later, much to Eileen's surprise.

      Eileen and Harold were married and moved to the Atlanta area, where Harold began studying at Georgia Tech.  They lived in a small trailer.  Harold studied and sold newspapers while Eileen had kids.  After he graduated, they moved up and down the East Coast as Harold followed engineering jobs.  He worked a number of projects under contract with the Defense Department and was often away from home at months at a time. 

     Eileen slowly developed a social phobia.  Kitty remembers that, during elementary school, she had to accompany her mother to club meetings and often had to carry the conversation for her.  On at least one move, Eileen dropped Kitty off at her new school, leaving her to register herself and trying to figure out how to get home after school while not knowing her new address or phone number.

     Although she kept a clean house, Eileen was not known for her housekeeping or culinary skills.  When Kitty's family moved into my hometown, they lived near a local farm.  One day, when the wind was right and when the farmer was spreading what comes naturally over his fields, one of Kitty's friends came into the house, sniffed, and asked, "Cooking again, Mrs. Keane?"

     Eileen began to get over her social phobia during the last twenty years of her life.  She became a real estate agent for a while, made a number of friends, and reconnected with high school friends.  She lived with us during the last three years of her life.  We had bought a house and remodeled it slightly to give Eileen the entire downstairs floor, allowing her access without having to climb any stairs.  At the time we had a foster daughter, Stephanie, a mentally retarded girl with many challenges.  (Stephanie was with us for over six years, until schizophrenia in her late teens forced the state to institutionalize her.)   Anyway, Stephanie would sometimes come home from school while we were still out and Eileen would watch over her.  She was no problem, Eileen said, except I have to watch that damned big red dog show on television with her -- given her druthers, Eileen would watch the news, western movies, or football.

     Around the same time, Mark was learning to walk and we watched him on mornings when Christina had to work.  Each morning Mark would smell the fresh toast that Eileen had made for breakfast and he would scurry (crawling) down the stairs to her living room, and position himself right next to her chair with his mouth open.  She loved this even more than she loved complaining about it.

     We'd take Eileen out shopping or to eat at least every other day.  One day she decided to treat us at a local Chinese restaurant.  She had planned this well in advance and had found an advertised special in the local newspaper.  Unfortunately for our waiter, the advertisement was for a different Chinese restaurant than the one where she took us.  Kitty and I slid down our seats in embarassment as Eileen argued with the waiter about the "advertised" special.  Eileen won, and we got the food the other restaurant had advertised and at the price that was advertised.  In honor of that occasion, we often go out for Chinese to celebrate Eileen's birthday.

     Eileen had a hard time admitting she liked me.  She was spot-on (I truly believe) in thinking Kitty was far too good for me, and I have been always grateful that Kitty did not agree.  For most of our married life, I was "that damned farmer Kitty married instead of a nice [insert professional occupation here]."  Toward the end Eileen actually admitted that I was a good person.  That's when I knew her life was coming to an end. 

     That January, she was hospitalized with what was thought to be congestive heart failure.  We visited her that day and damned if there weren't two buzzards sitting on the window outside her room.  She got a kick out of that.

     She was released from the hospital and put on hospice care.  She was able to enjoy her eightieth birthday with her family -- with more Chinese food, by the way.  She passed away that October, from COPD, not from heart failure.   She died at home quietly, with Kitty at her side.

     Eileen could be a difficult person and -- as my daughter used to say -- these were often difficult times.  But she survived and did it on her terms and that counts for a lot.  I understood where Eileen came from and respected her for that.  (Coincidently, my own mother's background was strikingly similar to Eileen's.)  At her heart, Eileen was a concerned and caring person.   For some reason two incidents stand out in my mind when I think of Eileen.

     When I was dating Kitty, Eileen had somehow found out that a friend of Kitty's younger brother did not have decent underwear -- he was one of several being raised by a single mother and money was tight.  That prompted Eileen to tell me to have my father (who owned his own business) to hire the boy for the summer so that he could have some money.  Every child should have decent underwear, Eileen told me.  (Yes, my father hired the boy, something that would not have happened without Eileen's insistance.)

      And, during her last months, hospice had a home aide visiting her several times a week.  Because we lived in the same house and took care for most of Eileen's needs, the home aide and Eileen would spend most of the time talking, with (surprisingly, I thought) Eileen mostly listening.  Eileen died shortly after 3:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.  Five hours later, the home aide pulled up to the house and I had to go out and explain that Eileen had just died.  The woman broke into tears against my shoulder.  Eileen had become her favorite, closest client.  (Later that day, I had to call some of her friends that she had been in daily contact with, and got the same reaction.)

     I can understand the tears.  Eileen was a remarkable person who sadly had buried her true self from many people and for many years.  My admiration and respect for her continues.  So today I wish her peace, in full knowledge that they serve Chinese food in Heaven.


  1. That's a lovely "story," Jerry, and a very fine tribute to your mother-in-law. Thanks very much sharing it.

  2. "Thanks very much for sharing it." I beg your pardon...

  3. Thank you, Prashant. Kitty and I appreciate it.

  4. I have a friend who, for some reason, has been on a Suffering Confers Nobility kick over the last year or so, something I'm not good enough a friend to not take issue with on occasion. The nobility either has to be developed or has to be you found it in your mother-in-law. Indeed, thanks for sharing this memorial.

    TM, not a damned bit nobler for what relatively mild suffering I've endured.