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mary’s Story

Mary McConaghy died at home of ALS on May 16th 2012.

A memorial service was held on Saturday May 26th at noon at the Episcopal  Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia PA.

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Mary's spiritual autobiography


I grew up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a city of about  30,000 people located on the shores of Lake Michigan.  I was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1945, just before the end of WWII.  My parents, Vivian and Fred, had been high school sweethearts who married in Columbia, SC, where he was training as a B25 pilot; they had the spring and summer together there before Fred returned to the Philippines, where he painted buxom women on the sides of planes in between bombing missions.  In May of 1945 his plane was shot down in the jungle, and although rescued by Filipinos fighting with the Americans against the Japanese, he died in a day or two. 

My mother was devastated, but surrounded by family and friends she built a life for the two of us.  Her mother, Olene, had been widowed a few years earlier; my uncle and two aunts were still in high school, and two other aunts were working while living at home (one of whom, sadly, died when I was two).  My mother and grandmother pooled their resources and bought the house I lived in until my mother remarried when I was nine; and it is this house that I associate with my childhood.  The depression had wiped out my mother’s family, and the two widows did not have much money.  But I remember the house as filled with life and love and laughter.  The house was often noisy with teenagers jitterbugging and laughing.  My grandmother would sing Norwegian songs as she worked around the house.  My mother and aunts sang harmony as they did the dishes at night; “Shine on Harvest Moon” stands out in my mind.  On Sundays we all went to the Norwegian Lutheran church a half block away and were busy in the choir and Sunday School.  I remember little red wooden chairs in the basement classrooms and women preparing meals in the basement kitchen. 

Life was good and I was loved, but not spoiled.  I never lacked for an adult willing to talk to me, to let me apply makeup to their faces, to take me along when they went shopping or ice skating, or at times, to tell me “no”. I certainly grew up comfortable with people of all different ages.  And I experienced women matter-of-factly stepping up and doing what needed to be done for their family, including shoveling coal in the fireplace and building book shelves.  Later on everyone split up to create their own families, but for those years all was safe and cozy.

As a young child in a quiet town in the days just before TV, I was often bored.  But I also learned to create my own entertainment with whatever was at hand; I designed clothes for paper dolls, wrote plays which I got other kids to act out, climbed trees and dug out caves in the snow banks, and I read - A LOT.  Certain aspects of my childhood fed my particular spirituality even then.  I was drawn to the lake, with the sound of the waves and the constantly changing water and sky; when I came to Philadelphia I really missed the fog horn.  In the country I loved the big, clear blue sky and the golden wheat and the red barns, especially in the light of early evening.  People there are not always as quick as I am to reveal their souls, but they are unpretentious, direct, helpful and friendly even to strangers in a supermarket – I can still see their faces.

When I was nine my mother asked me how I would feel if she married Dennis.  I enthusiastically said yes because I loved being on his 23 foot boat, with its small cabin and galley.  He was a widower so I landed up with four sets of grandparents – which was wonderful.  When Mom and Dad were married, we moved to a rented house on the other side of town, meaning I had to make friends at a new school starting in the 4th grade as well as feel my way into a relationship with Dad.  Looking back, I have immense respect for all step parents who are presented with half-grown children instead of infants with a relatively blank slate.  Somehow we managed to figure it out, and we grew to love and respect each other and to enjoy each other’s company. 

When I was 11, my sister Susan was born, and Dad started the process of building the Cape Cod house that would be the family home until he died in 2001.  We moved to the new house when I started junior high school, that is 7th grade.  Some of the kids I had known before 4th grade were there, but Dad had adopted me so I now had a new last name and in the confusion of students converging from 5 or 6 elementary schools, it took over a year for me to reestablish ties with people I knew before.  Being an outsider for a while however made me a better, more sympathetic person.

Junior and senior high school were happy.  I was an excellent student and although a little too bookish to be the life of the party, I was deeply involved in practically every school activity except sports and I had lots of friends and boyfriends and lots of fun. At home things were good too; I adored my little sister Susie and loved our summer vacations on Dad’s slightly larger new boat, the Iron Maiden, exploring islands and small towns on the thumb of Wisconsin that sticks into Lake Michigan. 

As for my spiritual life, I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, had gone to the sleep away vacation Bible Camp, and attended church faithfully, my favorite service being the sunrise Easter service.  But as I argued with our kindly pastor who still asserted that everything we do is motivated by sin, I was beginning to move in my own direction.  A huge ah-ha moment came when I was in Italy as an American Field Service student in the summer after my junior year, and my Italian family took me to Assisi.  I was deeply moved by the spirituality of this obviously thin place, and inspired to major in medieval history at college.

My college years were great. The Bryn Mawr academic system was too rigid, but I still was thrilled to have access for the first time to all sorts of wonderfully rich and complex subjects. It was heady experience reading John Donne on the roof of a Gothic dormitory on a spring evening.  But more importantly, being with all those smart, curious, interesting young women let me relax and breathe into myself; I had found a place to nurture the woman I was becoming.  No longer did I have to apologize for being bookish; we were all bookish so we could get on with it to explore the world, the diversity of each other’s backgrounds and the meaning of life.  Long into the nights we would talk, forming deep bonds that would last a lifetime.  We did not realize it at the time, but we also shared a spirituality that transcended our specific religious faiths.  Now, in our sixties, when we get together, we are still exploring the meaning of life, are committed to justice in the world, and to seeking God.  The church homes many of us have found closely resemble each other whether they are Episcopalian, Quaker, or Jewish.  We are amazed at how alike we are even in our differences.

I should mention that for three of my college summers I did piecework in the Mirro Aluminum factory. I am proud of being the first woman hired in the buffing department. I learned a lot in this dirty, noisy factory, where I  liked the people and got a taste of their perspective.  The other summer I worked in Washington DC, getting a job as a secretary in the office of the Air Force Chief of Chaplains and living with two Bryn Mawr friends.

At Bryn Mawr I had often attended services at Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches and of course Quaker meetings.  After college, I was turned off by organized religion and did not attend church for many years.  Part of this was my annoyance that, toward the end of college, my mother had switched the whole family, including me, from the Lutheran church to a Methodist church in the hopes that Dad would be more likely to attend. It did not occur to her that she should maybe at least ask me my opinion.  However, in my almost two decades away from the church, I was always spiritual – being most aware of that part of me in my interest in art and in my love of people. 

After college I spent a year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, getting a Master of Arts in Teaching (social studies).   Then I returned to Philadelphia to be with Dick (we had started dating near the end of our junior year), except that he got drafted and landed up in Viet Nam.  In the spirit of Martin Luther King, I taught grade school in North Philadelphia until my mother had a heart attack; then I returned to Wisconsin where I helped out at home and did a little substitute teaching for the six months until Dick returned from Viet Nam and we were married.   Susan was 13 years old, and it was very good for us all to be together for that time.

After Dick and I married, I taught 6th grade in North Philadelphia for four years while he finished law school and got settled as a lawyer. I loved the kids, but was wiped out by the school system.  After I stopped work, I continued to tutor at the school for several years and to maintain contact with some of my students for many years after.  Dick and I wanted to start a family but when I did not get pregnant, even after major surgery for endometriosis, we finally started the long adoption process that resulted in our adoption of Ned in 1984 and Alex in 1989.  Not being able to bear children was the first time in my life I could really not make something happen that I wanted very much.  It was frustrating, humbling, and good for me to realize that my hard work and good intentions were not sufficient, and that maybe the path I had set for myself was not the one I was supposed to be on.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was learning that I need God and that his plans for me are probably better than what I can think up.

Waiting for children to come, I got bored with needlepoint, studying French and doing volunteer gigs.  I wanted to matter.  My heart and brain yearned to be engaged.  I wanted to connect.

And so I did the PhD in American Civilization.  That Penn department was another place that felt like home.  Here all the disparate pieces of my life came together, the threads connecting the factory work and North Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr and my love of art and my facility for math and writing and my interest in what makes people tick.  I realized I had the gifts and experiences to tie history together in a meaningful way.  I worked hard because I loved it.  And I loved researching and writing my dissertation on ordinary white folks amidst the slaves and planters of South Carolina – even if it took 15 years to do. And of course the PhD eventually led to my career getting history online, most particularly at the Penn University Archives – a job that gave me much satisfaction and allowed me to bring history to life for many people.

The children did come after I started the dissertation.  When Ned was 2, he was diagnosed with leukemia, the treatment, relapse and second treatment continuing until he was almost 10.  Alex arrived when Ned was 5, bringing joy and “normalcy” into a family that, because of cancer, often seemed to be in its own strange world on the edge of the universe.  The worst times came the summer when Ned was 7 and Alex 2 - when Ned relapsed, Dick announced he would be ending the practice of law to go to grad school, and my mother died.  But hard as it all was, I learned a lot more about letting go of control, about setting priorities, about living in the moment, and in recognizing angels in my life.  For all the hard times there has also been much richness and much joy.

It was over twenty years ago, a year or two before that hard summer, that I found St. Martin’s.  The struggle to adopt and Ned’s cancer were hard, but I had a need to be somewhere that understood and affirmed the joy I still felt in my heart. I was feeling closer to God despite it all.  I knew I did not want a Calvinist church.  I was comfortable in Quaker meeting, but also was curious about St. Martin’s right down the street (we had moved from Rex Avenue to St. Martin’s Lane).  The first time I came to St. Martin’s, I knew I was REALLY home.  I could feel that people were seekers, that they felt joy even though their lives were not so perfect. I sensed that little Ned would be drawn to the ceremonial ritual and hoped that Dick might be attracted by the music.  The church has been woven into the fabric of our lives and has meant so much to me these last decades.  I have found God so many places at St. Martins - around the communion table, at Holy Cross, in all the joyful meals we have shared, in the darkness at the start of the Great Vigil, at Stephen Ministry meetings, and in centering prayer and being together.

The other important place I have felt especially close to God and have felt my soul fed is on Deer Isle, Maine.  Since we first discovered this mystical place in 1979 we have spent not all, but many of our summer vacations there, each year making new discoveries and settling deeper into the peace of the place – and we have had the added joy of discovering so many good people from St. Martin’s there with whom to share the magic.

Looking back over my life I see that, after starting out years ago nurtured by a loving family and granted certain talents and gifts, my spiritual growth has been particularly fed by being in thin places, by finding and connecting with the God in other people, and when life is at its most difficult, beyond my control.  I notice growth has often happened when I was in a place that felt like home to me, where the people, the spirit of the place or the physical place itself resonated deeply within me and allowed me to relax into who I am meant to be.  I also see that I am most likely to experience this kind of growth when my world falls apart and any idea that I am in control of what happens is clearly an illusion; I am forced to let go and trust in God. 

But now here I am with ALS, definitely not in control of my life.  Where am I on my spiritual journey now?  The hardest time was the first six months as I struggled to find a new equilibrium. But I was able to stop the freefall to concentrate on what I still have and can still do.  I have gained strength and solace from finding God in the moment and in the faces of those around me.  I am blessed to be surrounded by angels and to feel God’s love and joy every day.  No matter what yucky stuff happens, life is still good.  No matter what part of my physical abilities I am losing, there is always something good in the day that can make my heart sing.  I have prayed for God to help me to make a difference in this world as long as I am able and to help me trust that I can let go and he will watch and he will watch over those I love even when I am not here.

Lately, as my physical decline is more noticeable I have become aware that I need to get more intentional about preparing for death.  I am going to a place where the faces and places where I have found God in the past will not exist.  In order to not be afraid of death, I need to become more comfortable resting in God alone.  That is what I am working on now.  I focus on this as I explore my inner monk and inner artist.  I talk about it with my spiritual advisor.  I try to let myself get close to God and just be with him – it can be scary to think of nothing existing except you and God, but I think that is the first step to wanting to be with him so much that I can let go of this life without pain.  So far I am sensing that gaining that comfort level is a gradual process, and that God will “gentle” me in that direction if I just let him.  I cannot do this by myself, but once again God will help so that I can truly come home at last.