Jeanne O’Sullivan Sachs (15 October 1920 – 19 July 2009)
Francis “Frank” McCourt (19 August 1930 – 19 July 2009)
My mother was always a mystery to me. The oldest child in a large, Irish Catholic family, she was a brilliant beauty whose musical gifts inspired everyone around her.
I was the polar opposite: scrappy, frizzy-haired, cross-eyed, born to bluntly question and challenge the world. I was convinced throughout my childhood that I was adopted; how could I possibly be related to such a refined, remote, creature?
It became a lifelong quest for me to make sense of the distant dynamic between Mom and me.
My mother was a gifted cellist, a child prodigy who grew up outside Boston during the Great Depression and became a soloist throughout central New England.
Awarded a scholarship to a prestigious music conservatory after high school, she chose instead to work as a secretary in a Harvard cancer research laboratory to help support her younger brothers and sisters. It was there she met her future husband: a young doctor of German-Jewish heritage who shared her love of music. It was the first of many sacrifices she was to make over the next 60 years of what she always termed a happy life. I never experienced my mother as happy. She always seemed far away to me – detached – as if she wished she were somewhere else.
It was probably no surprise that Mom gave up her solo career when she married; and that she played very little music during the years she birthed and raised six children. I struggled for decades to understand the irony of the life she chose as opposed to the life she might have built.
When I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1996, it opened a window of understanding that changed my view of my mother forever. Never has a book had such profound impact on my daily life. Not that Jeanne O’Sullivan and Frank McCourt shared similar childhoods… When young Frank was growing up in Limerick, as he wrote in the first chapter of Angela’s Ashes: “It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
Jeanne’s childhood was poor, Irish and Catholic, and filled with with the joy of music. As Mr. McCourt memorably wrote: “Happiness is hard to recall. It’s just a glow.” Those were the words that connected me to my mother.
It is somehow fitting that Mom and Frank McCourt died within hours of one another. As the Irish American journalist Pete Hamill wrote in The Irish Central (July 22, 2009): “Irony, as practiced by the Jews and the Irish, can be wielded as a weapon, but it is above all a kind of armor… Irony creates distance, a certain knowing detachment, while acknowledging membership in the club of human weakness and folly.” That was Jeanne O’Sullivan Sachs.
During her final days Mom kept her children laughing while whispering again and again that she loved us and was grateful for her happy life. I didn’t know that Frank McCourt was dying at that exact time. I wish I had thanked him for teaching me about the kind of happiness that is so unquantifiable that it just glows. Because that is what I treasure most about my mother: however far away she seemed to me, she always glowed.
Happy Mothers Day, Mom. And thank you, Mr. McCourt.
I’m imagining the two of you conversing, one more eloquent than the other, and wondering if you arrived at the gates of heaven together. Yes… I think magnificent music must have welcomed you as you danced your way into the kingdom.