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Anything for Aunt Louise: Finding Meaning in Life

Anything for Aunt Louise: Finding Meaning in Life

  |   life after retirement, purpose of life

About 3AM on July 10, I got the call from my oldest brother that everyone dreads, “hi Paul, the nursing home just called me to say that mom died a short time ago.” He went on to say that he had woken up about 2:30; I said I woke up about that time too. We learned later that our two siblings on CA had stayed up late that night. In a way, we were all “with our mother in spirit” when she died.

image - meaningIn the days that followed, I got kind notes from many, many people offering condolences and asking about my mother. So, being a recovering management consultant, I created an email to reply quickly with a two-sentence summary of my mother’s life: “Louise was a kind and loving woman who lived 89.9 years, had one long marriage, 4 kids, 8 grandchildren, 3 great grandchildren, as well as 30 nieces and nephews, 35 great nieces and nephews and 8 great, great nieces and nephews. Over 100 people from 4 generations attended her funerals, 70 staying for the post-burial luncheon.”

As my siblings followed our mother’s very detailed instructions, we found that we had little to decide upon really – not much more than asking a few people to give the readings and eulogy at the funeral Mass, or to be pall-bearers, and choosing the place for the post-burial luncheon. As we called various cousins and their spouses, all had the same response, “anything for Aunt Louise”.

Louise Cronin had found a purpose in her life as mom, grandmother, great grand mother, as well as aunt, great aunt, and very good friend to many. In many ways my mother’s life was a journey of continually finding meaning in life. She never had much money, but she had happiness in droves.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take a life like that.

My oldest nephew was chosen to give the eulogy; forgive a proud uncle for saying this, but he did a wonderful job. I have copied a version below (edited for privacy).  Being of Irish decent, he naturally tells a long story, but a good one:

Louise Cronin – A life long-lived filled with family, friends, love, a wink and a smile.

Hello, for those that don’t know me, or for those of you I haven’t seen in some time, I’m B., Louise’s oldest grandchild. Although I am deeply saddened that Louise, or as I called her “grandma” is no longer with us, I also feel at peace as I reflect on what her daughter aptly described as a life long lived, filled with family friends, and of course, her signature wink and smile. I am truly honored to speak before you today in remembrance of my grandmother. She was a person that, in the truest sense, gave more to this world than she ever asked, and moreover, ever expected in return. Summarizing the life of a person that personified love and generosity would take more time that we have here today. I hope that by sharing my thoughts and memories, as well as those of her daughter and son and some of her grandchildren, we can repay her love and generosity with a few deeply felt words of appreciation.

I would like to start by sharing her daughter’s memories of her mother, in which she describes Louise’s most prominent qualities:

Generous beyond measure: Many of you would agree, Louise personified this trait. Perhaps growing up during the Great Depression, third in a family of 7 children, shaped it; perhaps the Catholic principles of community service and social justice influenced her. Or, perhaps it was due to her personal disposition. Whatever the reasons, Louise would literally give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. Actually, when you needed it. Always.

Louise’s family moved from Dorchester to West Roxbury when she was 18 (from blue-collar to white collar as it were). Frequently, she and her sisters were sent to babysit the children next door, or the children of another family nearby. She and her sisters were never paid. Years later, when her daughter asked her why she and her sisters weren’t paid, Louise’s response was “What do you mean?” “Why”? “Those families needed our help.” “It wasn’t a job.”

Long before there was Uber, there was Louise Cronin. In 1964, shortly after moving to Readville, Louise discovered that most of the mothers on the street did not know how to drive. Louise became known as the neighbor who’d always give you a ride. The odometer of every car she owned proved it! Years later, next door neighbor June joked: “That car backed out of the driveway at 8 am and came back around 6 pm, having spent the day at the post office, Stop-and-Shop, St. Anne’s, Cleary Square, the Dedham Plaza – with a pit stop at her sister’s house on Willow St. – or a doctor’s office for everybody on this street!”

Before the era of daycare or aftercare, there was Louise Cronin. In the early 1970’s, three neices and nephews spent several summers living with The Cronin’s in Readville as a favor to her sister, whom today we’d describe as a working single-mother. Having these 3 kids plus 4 of her own in the house didn’t faze Louise in the least. If anything, having 3 new kids in the mix was a boost: New playmates, fewer fights (except that Mrs. Beasley incident between C. and M.), and 3 children who appreciated her.

In the 1980’s, Louise joyfully leaped – that’s beyond jumped – at every opportunity to babysit her grandchildren my sister and me. For several years, her son K.(our father) would bring us over to Louise’s house on Sundays. The official reason was to give our mother a chance to rest at home after working the night shift at a hospital. Yet, many of us saw that my sister and were actually doing Louise the favor, reminding her of the joy of unfettered exploration of a house loaded with things to touch. These visits helped Louise significantly during the dark days following her husband Neil’s sudden death.

In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Louise happily “babysat” her great neice. Some of us still aren’t sure who was babysitting who; based on how often they went to Friendly’s Ice Cream, and how much fun they had together. By the way, we’re pretty sure the decline of Friendly’s is linked to her great neice’s move to Baltimore.

Social Butterfly. Louise defined this term. Can any of us here picture her without a group of people? From childhood, to Readville to Cape Cod and eventially to Milton, Louise made friends – a lot of them – easily. She loved people and people loved her back! She was frequently invited to join relatives and friends for BBQs, parties or weddings. Her social calendar was always booked. Her home was filled with pictures and programs from a plethora of events she attended, such as plays, concerts, historic landmarks, and local attractions. Often the programs had someone’s name scribbled on the side, indicating she knew the person performing.

The Activities Director at Louise’s apartment complex said that she counted on Louise to be the first person to sign-up for the day trips being organized, and then to convince – and occasionally cajole – others into signing up, too. As I said at Grandma’s 80th birthday: No one can fill a room like Louise Cronin!”

Inclusive. It almost goes without saying that everyone who knew Louise, knew she included everyone. Relatives, friends, even relatives of friends, were always welcome at Louise’s home. Many a neighborhood kid in Readville spent time at the Cronin’s house, in addition to all of her nieces and nephews.

…Ireland with her sisters in 1987…
…Disney World with her oldest son and his family in 1989
…San Francisco…
…New Mexico…
… Or just about anywhere within a 3 hour driving distance from Boston!

Renegade: Back to those mothers in Readville who didn’t know how to drive. Louise took it upon herself to teach several of them to drive. Some were leery of doing this because their husbands didn’t approve – it was the early 1960’s, mind you – yet Louise justified it this way: “You can’t take the T (Boston’s public transit system) in the middle of January with a sick child!” Let’s just say that didn’t go over so well for some of the husbands, from whom Neil endured a few evil-eye stares. But, we all know that Louise actually got a kick out of those evil eyes. Supporting the underdog was something she relished!

Resourceful: Louise was a very resourceful person. When she could no longer drive, she transitioned to taking “The Ride”, the MBTA’s van service for the elderly, everywhere. A neighbor from the aprtment complex in Milton told us that Louise taught new residents how to take The Ride. Saturday and Sunday mornings at Building 5 were probably the busiest days for The Ride employees, thanks to Louise encouraging everyone to use it to go to church or synagogue.

When Louise was well enough to travel to San Francisco to see both her daughter’s and another son’s families, she used to wrap up each visit by genuinely thanking her son-in-law for using his frequent flyer miles to fly her out there. Naturally, she would also hint about using them again “next year” with that wink and smile that all of us loved so much.

Optimist: There’s a lot written today about resilience, so it would be easy to describe Louise as resilient. She was in spades. Yet, underlying this resilience was eternal optimism. She greeted each day with hope. She overcame many obstacles in her life and kept looking forward. In early 1953, she contracted Pleurisy, causing her to delay her wedding by 4 months. Then in late 1954, she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the sanatorium for two years. Leaving behind her husband and a six-week old baby, would have flattened some, but not Louise. She got well and left the sanatorium, which not all patients did. And, based on pictures we found, she and other patients celebrated holidays and birthdays. She also kept a photo album of her son’s weekly visits, which required a screen door between them.

Her husband’s sudden death in 1982 was a shocking setback; it took her several difficult years to recover. And when she did, she came back with full force, not just joining The Widowed Lifeline, but running it. In Milton, she not only joined her complex’s Resident Council, but became president. She was also the Program Chair for the Milton Women’s Club.

In sum, Louise touched the lives of virtually everyone in her life in deeply meaningful ways. From her, we all learned the virtue of selfless love and generosity. For this, and countless other reasons, we will miss her dearly.

A son’s Memories:
My mom always made sure our birthdays were special. I remember many parties with my cousins, friends and neighborhood kids. For my 10th birthday she surprised me and a couple of my friends with tickets to be on the” Rex Trailer Show “, which was a live Saturday morning Kids TV show on Channel 4.
I had Just turned 10 that week and this was my special present. We got up early that day and mom drove the bunch of us including my brothers to the TV station. Once we were settled into the studio, the Staff asked ME if I wanted to be Sheriff for the day. That was a huge honor. I always wanted to be Sheriff, but never thought it would happen. This was one of the best birthdays I had ever had as a kid and, every birthday since, I still recall the fond memories of that day.

Granddaughter E’s Memories: I really do not think I ever saw Grandma without a smile on her face. Every Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, and every visit in between she always had such a grin on her face. I cannot imagine next Christmas without her sitting in the chair by the television at Uncle Kevin and Aunt Gail’s house listening to everyone’s stories. Although she was soft spoken, she always had such a positive and loving energy. I wish I could remember some of the stories she told me over the years, but I loved listening to her talk about her childhood. The day after she died, I was talking to my dad about Grandma when he and went to the beach in her honor. She loved the beach and it’s one of my last memories of her being physically active. Most of my memories of Grandma involve a cane or walker but not at the beach. Although Grandma was quite weak the last few years, she always pushed herself to make it to every family outing. She truly loved her family and we all loved her so much.

Granddaughter A’s memories: I loved visiting grandma in Milton. She would enthusiastically buzz us in and immediately showed us pictures of our little cousins whom she had just visited in California. Then we would usually stop by the common room where grandma would run into countless friends and they would typically say “oh my, you have gotten so big.” Or “I’ve heard so much about you, it’s so nice to finally meet you.” It was heartwarming to see how proud grandma was of each and every one of her grandchildren. It also exemplified what a social butterfly grandma was and that characteristics never faded with age. I fondly remember grandma telling us about grandpa’s job. She described how he would get up early, go to the plant (a large bakery) and pick up the powdered donuts and drop them off at at grocery stores. I believe it was a treat if he brought some donuts home from work. I never met Grandpa Cronin, but it’s evident that grandma thought of him fondly and I am so glad they will be together again.

My sister L’s memories: Every Sunday (in Readville) B. and I had the run of the house. She rarely said no to us and we had much more freedom to roam and make a mess than we did at our house. It was pure fun. There was usually an uncle or aunt, or two home from college or just living there in their early-twenties to hang out with. She was never overwhelmed by a full house and enjoyed every moment of it. There were a few summers where B. went to basketball camp and I didn’t have anything to do. She would scoop me up and take me down to the cape, where she was living for a few years, and we would be buddies for a week. We would go to the beach, swim in the pool at the condo, take long walks. She would let ME make her dinner (I think I was 7 or 8), and play UNO until an hour after my bedtime.

My Memories: Many of my strongest and most beloved memories of my childhood are from the Sundays L. and I would spend at Grandma’s house. Yes, as L. said, although the rules at grandma’s house were much more lenient than in our house, I think what made Sundays at grandma’s house so fun was that grandma, in many ways, viewed the world through the innocence and unadulterated fun of a child’s eyes. Who else but my grandma, for example would let her recently-potty trained grandchildren make root beer floats? Grandma didn’t have root beer in the house that day, so we improvised by using a half a bottle of flat ginger ale and the vanilla stripe of a carton of Neapolitan ice cream! The resulting flat ginger ale float tasted pretty gross, but L. and I drank it all up, because, as always, Grandma let us try new things and we were proud of our creation. There’s more- Who but my Grandma would let a two and a three year old quote unquote “help” wash the dishes by yanking a stool over to the sink and letting us slosh water and dish soap all over the counter, and from what I’ve gathered from various reports, all over much of the kitchen floor! Who else but my grandma could truly understand the joy in huddling up under a warm blanket fresh from the dryer, which she prepared for my sister and me after returning from playing in the snow, often half a dozen times in one day.

As the years went on, and my sister and I no longer required babysitting, Grandma was still always there for us at some of the more important, and happiest moments of our lives- She proudly attended dance recitals, basketball games and track meets, high school and college graduations, and our weddings. She was there to rejoice in the births and childhoods of her other 6 grandchildren. She loved you all so very much and beamed with pride every time she spoke about you.

She even got to enjoy visits from her first great grandchild (my sister’s son), who in true Cronin fashion, would turn up the charm and entertain grandma and a number of her fellow residents at the nursing home. Grandma was always very supportive of me and the paths I chose in life. Over the last two years, when visiting grandma however, she would end our visits with an uncharacteristically direct line of questioning, “So when am I going to get to hold my great grandchild?” she would ask. Sadly, grandma never got to meet my daughter, or L’s second child, before she passed. She did see pictures of my daughter however, and I take comfort in knowing I fulfilled my promise to her and made her happy in this way before she left us. Years from now, when I watch my daughter helping a friend in need, or organizing a social group in the neighborhood or telling a story about her friends in a way that makes you feel like you know them personally, I will know that the legacy of Louise, my grandmother whom I loved and admired more than she’ll ever know, lives on.

Thank you all for sharing in these memories and for being here to celebrate Louise’s life.