Fond memories of a wild Irish rose

My father says my mother was the most beautiful woman he ever met. I don't need to say he was prejudiced. Beautiful is not the word I'd use for her strong cheekbones, wild curls, and laughing brown eyes.

Mother was what Anne of Green Gables described as "better than beautiful." Her face reflected the energy that kept her in constant motion.

She loved parties, and she danced whether anyone was watching or not. The night before she unexpectedly died, she danced the streets of New Orleans with a passing jazz band.

Mother loved New Orleans, but then, she loved the entire world. Born in Tipperary, Ireland, she emigrated with her family to Australia when she was 5. She met my father there during World War II and emigrated again, to Mobile, Ala., after they married.

Some of my earliest memories include hearing others discuss Mother's "accent" and her "unusual ways." Even a preschooler could determine that when Alabamians comment on an accent, there's more than one. Nevertheless, decades later, Mother laughed when I told her how protective I had felt of her. "People were so kind," she said. "I wonder why you worried."

I wonder, too. I know that every time the issue of immigration reemerges in this country, I respond like the immigrant's daughter I am. I want to be sensitive to the need for boundaries, but also to the longing for a new country. I respect the great contributions made by people who struggle to live in what my mother called "the greatest country on God's green earth."

Ellen Costello Balthrop became a naturalized citizen at the earliest opportunity, five years after her ship docked in San Francisco and she crossed the country by train to Mobile.

She thought nothing of traveling with a newborn across hemispheres or continents. She did what she had to do, usually with generosity and laughter. "Keep on keeping on" was one of her mottoes. "We have to take care of each other" was another.

Did I mention my mother was brave? But tests terrified her, so did speaking in public. Somehow she managed to get my older brother and me to drill her with questions about the government and the Constitution for her citizenship test. "I have to get this right," she'd say. "Roit."

I was too young to know how to read. Paul was only 6. How did we know the questions or the answers? Maybe she told us to remember; so we did. Mother, for all her delightful characteristics, was a stern taskmaster and her temper could stop traffic.

She said that the day she was granted citizenship was the happiest day of her life. She left Ireland before it was a free state, and she was not given Australian citizenship during the war. Perhaps she was happy just to be admitted to the fold.

But she had a deep and abiding belief in the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. Her blood would boil when others did not take citizenship seriously. She anticipated elections and eagerly discussed politics, both local and national.

My parents rarely fought openly, but when I was 12, I briefly feared they might divorce. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Mother supported John F. Kennedy as wildly as the mother of eight children, one a newborn, could manage: Mr. Kennedy was Irish! He had new ideas! Everyone should vote for him! Who would be such an eejit as to vote for the other guy!

That fall, Daddy's eyes took on a rare glint. When Mother mentioned the candidates, he ducked his head slightly and tightened his lips. When he said he might vote for Nixon, she could scarcely speak, an unprecedented event.

Would my father insist on being an idiot? I prayed not. But after the election, he never mentioned how he voted, and Mother respected his silence. One's vote was as private and sacred as one's faith.

Mother's faith and sense of justice moved her to march in Pensacola, Fla., during the civil rights movement. She would bristle at the very mention of inequality.

Later, when the homeless population burgeoned in north Florida, as elsewhere, her convictions led her to Rick Humphries, who helped her open a soup kitchen in his restaurant after hours.

She was justifiably proud of Loaves & Fishes, which still provides meals and other services in Pensacola.

She was also proud of her children, but my mother was also as humble as anyone I've ever met. "I'm not special," she would say. "If I could do this, anyone can."

I don't expect to live up to her legacy, but I try to remember the lessons she taught me throughout her full, busy life: "Be brave, keep on, speak truth. We are all brothers and sisters. We have to take care of each other. Freedom is a rare and precious gift. Fighting is rarely the answer."

And ever useful in a pinch: "Don't be such an eejit!"

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