Last Friday, after years of trying to fight her illness, a beloved member of my dad's family, Eileen Gillespie, passed away. After the wake, many of us went to the bar, and as the Saw Doctors played on the jukebox, cigarettes were lit, and drinks poured, I began to think about Eileen’s children and grandchildren and cousins, all of whom loved her so much, and I asked myself the question: what type of legacy will I leave behind?
My dad’s mother and Eileen were cousins who also happened to live down the block from each other. Because of difficult family circumstances, Eileen helped raise my dad and his two brothers in addition to raising her own eight children. With eleven kids to keep her eye on, (nine of whom were boys), Eileen’s form of mothering, from the legendary stories I’ve heard all my life, was no-nonsense and tough, but always infinitely loving. The result of that mixture of love and grit resulted in eleven adults who have continued to live their lives in a way that would make her proud. I often wonder what it must have been like for Eileen to be at a family party and look around at her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and to see the impact she’s made on the world. But I think that her only response would be one of humility—pride in those she raised, without acknowledging pride for herself.
So what does this have to do with an MFA blog? Am I just using this platform to talk about what a wonderful woman Eileen was, how much she will be missed, and how if there were more people like her in the world, we’d all be much better off? Well, partly. But it’s also that (at the risk of sounding too Oprah-ish) I’ve just been thinking a lot these past few days about the importance of living your best life. I think the greatest gift you can give to those who raised you is to take what they’ve given you and do the best you can with it: to work as hard as you can, love as much as you can, give as much as you can, and shape a life for yourself that says: this is what you’ve given me: now look what I’ve done with it! And I guess, in the end, that’s partly why I enrolled in an MFA in the first place: to make the most of my gifts, and to do the best I can to make them matter. I’m not comparing this writing program to the daunting task of raising eleven kids, and raising them well, but I’m talking about living a life, as my cousin Pat said in his eulogy, where you have no regrets.
For as long as I can remember, my dad brought Eileen flowers every Mother’s Day. It wasn’t the largeness of the gesture, but the consistency of it, that always impressed me. It was his small way of thanking her for the consistency she brought to his own life. This past Monday night, my dad brought her flowers again for the last time; a funeral display of heart-shaped roses that stood among many other displays around her casket. It seemed fitting, for a woman who loved to garden, even in her last years when she lost her ability to do many other activities she used to enjoy. And I thought of her when I read with my American Lit students this week the words of Walt Whitman,
“I bequeath myself to grow from the grass I love, if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. / You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,/ and filter and fiber your blood./ Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/ Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.”