A Final 'Good Night' to Mary Louise, Ma Mère

(Note: I delivered this eulogy today for my mother, Mary Louise Brooke, at All-Saints Church, in the University section of Syracuse, N.Y. My mother spent her earliest years a literal stone's throw from the church, where she was baptized.)

At the tender age of 44, I received my second letter ever from my mother, that is, of course, Mary Louise, whom I’ve taken to calling Mère, French for mother. For she was truly a citizen of the world.

Her note to me was typed on paper about half the width of a regular sheet, with the printed heading, “Things to do on the maid’s day off ...”

I read this and laughed. I said to myself, “Not only is this woman beautiful and smart, but she’s got a sense of humor. She’s even a touch exotic. In the lottery of lost-and-found motherhood, I thought, hey, I won.” 

Above, ma mère's casket just before interment, graced with a butterfly, part of her favorite iconography.

I am the only child of Mary Louise, whom we remember here today. There's so much to tell about this remarkable woman and so much still to know. 

For one, despite her surname Brooke, she is not nearly as British as her name suggests. She was born Mary Louise O’Connor nearly 87 years ago here in Syracuse. At my birth 20 years later, she named me Patrick O’Connor, and then sent me out into the world, without her, buoyed, I’m sure, by the belief that I would have a childhood she could never furnish.

MLB was highly intelligent and beautiful, and remained a handsome woman by the time we reunited in July 1997. It is absolutely amazing to me is that I stand here as a living, breathing, and I’m sure to her surprising part of her legacy.

Mère brought life, love and light to me in abundance. Before I found my mother I felt lost, never quite ‘enough.’ Finding her alive and well, after three years of searching and prayer, provided me confirmation that God has always watched over me -- and her, as well. 

Left, MLB in a shot to promote her modeling career by fotog Ronnie Berg, Paris, 1962.

MLB was born Nov. 25, 1932, to Catherine and Francis O’Connor, both descended from Irish immigrants. Mère was the second child, following Fran, and preceded siblings Ann, Cathy and Eleanor. Francis Sr. worked for New York Central Railroad for 50 years.

Mère's father was a skilled brakeman, and was transferred a number of times during her childhood. So Mere grew up somewhat rootlessly -- in Syracuse, then Pennsylvania, then to Toledo, Ohio, and back here. She finished her formal education at now defunct St. Anthony’s High School.

After graduation, she moved to Manhattan. She landed a job as a telephone operator, and met my eventual father, John DeWitt Shiman, when she patched a phone call for him. They dated a few months. Mère found out she was pregnant just after she broke off the relationship. Mere decided to relinquish her baby, that would be me, through the agency of the archdiocese’s Catholic Home Bureau a few days after I was born.

Perhaps our sublimest hour

I searched for my mother using records filed within New York City. One of the earliest came from an official, who described her as “5’9”, 129 pounds, red hair, blue-green eyes, and fair-freckled complexion,” and for good measure,  “extremely attractive with poise.” When I related this description to her, she immediately took umbrage, noting that she was in fact 5’10”, and added that her kid sister Ellie was, in fact, the family beauty. 

Mère gained weight after surviving colon cancer at age 61, so by the time we met in 1997, when she turned 65, she was no longer riding a bike around London and no longer 127 pounds. But she clearly mesmerized me, both for who she was and what she represented.

After my birth, Mère remained in Manhattan and became engaged to a physician, Tom Kong, of Chinese ancestry and considerable means. She broke up with him after visiting Italy and France on his dime, without him. She came back to the city, worked and saved for a year, and in January 1960 she moved to Europe. She lived first in Rome, then Paris, and finally, since 1966 in London, where she died Oct. 3.

In her 59 years abroad, she had various jobs, including a stint at the CIA, where she served as an administrative aide. Her last job was as a secretary in a white-glove law firm across the street from her flat in London’s posh Knightsbridge section. She also pursued, somewhat halfheartedly, a modeling career. She ultimately opted for job security.

Right, my mother in Hydra, Greece, August 1977

Mère was married once, in 1968, to an Englishman, named Guy Fitzsimmons Brooke, whom she met in Dublin, Ireland, of all places. It wasn’t, in her words, a felicitous match and they divorced.

Mère had reading and viewing tastes that hint at a romantic world view -- and British sensibilities. My uncle Peter remembers Mère's enthusiasm for the 1948 British film, “The Red Shoes,” which follows a ballerina who finds she must choose between her career and a romance with an orchestra conductor. As well, Peter and Ann heard Mère often mention Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, “The Razor’s Edge,” about an American pilot who rejects a conventional life of career and marriage in pursuit of life’s deeper meaning.

Cousin Sean recalled, “As a boy I'd find it funny how (Aunt Mary) would say, "Well done." instead of "Thank you" if we did her a favor. Sean also recalls receiving from Mère the popular children’s book "Mr. Sneeze" by British author Roger Hargreaves. Sean reminded me, as well, of one of Mère favorite British-isms, “Full stop!” used to affirm a remark as unquestionable.

Perhaps my sublimest hour, among many with her, took place in the summer of 1999, when Mère visited me in New York City. I took her to a restaurant named Asti, where had gone on a date. Though the restaurant was not yet open, we squeezed through the unlocked door. A porter greeted us, I asked for Augie, whom I met 17 years earlier when he was the manager. Augie emerged from the kitchen and Mere stepped forward, saying “Hello, my name is Mary Louise, and this is my son, Gerry.” I was staggered by her open and casual avowal of our once-secret bond. I was proud of her, and me, too.

I recall that in our first few months reunited, Mère said she only wanted family to know she was a mother. Two years later she led me into her law office and introduced me to the young women there. "Oh, Mary's son. We've heard so much about you! We're so happy to finally meet you."  In welcoming me into her life, MLB demonstrated great courage.

Love is boundless. It spans time and distance. I suspected that I loved MLB the moment I sprang from her. I believe in her heart of hearts she felt the same for me, despite tensions that arose.

My life has been graced by my time with Mère. God’s hand guided my search for her at every turn with St. Patrick riding shotgun. She and I found each other right on schedule! Mere, I always loved you, always will. FULL STOP.

(My thanks to Peter King, Sean Nevins, and Peter’s friend and assistant Monique for creating this “goodnight” to MLB; to my fiance, Mary, for her support over many years; and to Joe Soll and Prudence Bastian Karr, for their roles in facilitating my search.)

Related Media:

* All Souls' Day

* 'Birthday Boy': Seeking Patrick O'Connor

Death of a 'Birthday Queen' . . . and Perhaps a Farewell

* Video Presentation of 'Death of a Birthday Queen' at MINY Toastmasters, May 15, 2019 (YouTube, 8:45)

* 'I Am Dreaming of Home'

Once Upon a Time, Maureen O'Hara Might Have Been My Mom

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Tags: family history, memoir


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