I live in the house where I was raised. Some may think of me as a “townie,” one of those New England creatures who never leaves home. And when they look at my house, I’m sure they see a place that needs lots of work. The yard needs landscaping, the upstairs bathroom needs plumbing, and the kitchen has a gaping hole in the ceiling over the sink (see upstairs bathroom). But what they can’t see is the foundation. Not the cement that supports the frame of the house, but the history that holds me up.
This Women’s History Month. While I honor the women who have, should or will make the history books – Rosa Parks, Lilly Ledbetter, Hillary Clinton and so many others, I find myself thinking about my personal history and one of the women who shaped my life. The National Women’s History Project writes, “Learning about women’s tenacity, courage, and creativity throughout the centuries is a tremendous source of strength.” I know this is true.
Eighty years ago, my great-grandmother Ma McDonough bought the house where I live. At that time, women didn’t purchase property, but Ma McDonough was no ordinary woman.
My great-grandmother came from a well-to-do family in Ireland. As was the tradition then, her older brother was set to inherit the family farm and she would inherit nothing. So Ma McDonough left for Boston, rather than be dependent on someone else. She married, raised four children and somehow managed to save money. When her husband died, she moved out of the city and bought herself and three of her then adult children a new house in the suburbs. It was the Great Depression and the builder had run out of money. Ma McDonough had cash and moved in.
My great-grandmother’s financial situation was rare. Many of the neighbors were struggling to feed their families. So, when the grocer cart came by each week selling meat and vegetables, Ma McDonough would buy her food and then buy for the family around the corner. Years later, after my parents bought the house, a man stopped his car and told my sister who was playing in the yard, “Your great grandmother kept this neighborhood alive.”
On Sundays the church paraded orphaned children down the aisle in hopes a parishioner would take them in. Ma McDonough did. And when the boy across the street needed assistance, Ma would give him her own son’s clothes and cigarettes. One day my great-uncle Bart came home from work and noticed the boy’s outfit. He remarked to his mother that he owned a new shirt just like the one the neighbor was wearing. “Not anymore,” she replied. When she died, Bart found a package of his things in his mother’s room, waiting to be delivered to someone else.
She was waked in her parlor and her friends came from the city by bus to mourn her. When an MTA bus driver showed up, her children asked him how he knew their mother. “I didn’t,” he said. He had overheard my great-grandmother’s friends telling stories about her and he wanted to pay his respects.
I can’t claim to have even a fraction of my great-grandmother’s generosity. But I have her strength. It’s in the house. I know the beauty and magic of this place, even with its long list of repairs. I returned home so that I could venture out, buoyed by the spirit of Ma McDonough. Through her, I understand the value of women — whether they lead countries, break barriers, create homes or care for communities. I live in the house where I was raised because it is my history.