‘What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men …… That is what love looks like.’ - St. Augustine

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mabel's Story

She'd be 111 years old today; Mabel Ellis Cahill, my grandmother. She was the type of women you'd expect to live that long. But she didn't. She died a few weeks following my twentieth birthday - this woman I so admired.

Nana, as we called her, was a complicated soul. She wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but the two of us forged a close bond from my earliest recollections. In fact, one of my earliest memories is from about the age of two, rocking in her arms, on her cottage porch, while she sang Always, the Irving Berlin song she so loved. It must've been during the fall, because I remember the rough feel of her sweater, and the wind coming through a screen window with chilling force, and the lonely sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below.

My grandmother did not have an easy life. I have the remnants of her childhood diary to prove it. A bitter alcoholic father and a sickly, cancer-ridden mother, who died just after Mabel's tenth birthday. What were those days of mourning like? Who looked after her and consoled her? A new mother was soon in the picture and, thankfully, a wonderful woman. But my grandmother had already built up a wall. I'm not sure they ever got close. But a few years later baby Virginia was born, and my grandmother loved her fiercely. Ever other page of her diary is laced with mentionings of this beloved baby sister.

As I grew, our relationship blossomed from one of childhood admiration to a true friendship. I was at her house nearly every day - she only lived a stone's throw away once I reached age 12. I would sit and listen to stories of her childhood - like the time she cut her doll in half when her father insisted she share it with her sister. Nana, of course, kept the upper half.

She told me about sneaking out to meet my grandfather against her own father's wishes. 'More for spite than anything else --' she told me. In an alcoholic rage, her father cut short her waist length auburn hair to keep her from seeing him. But it only drove her further to disobey him. She told me of knock-down drag-out fights with her father over college. She wanted to go so badly, but he refused, saying it wasn't for women to be so educated. Her brothers went instead.

She also told me sad stories that never had an ending, like the one about the lodger that lived in their basement when she was growing up and how he 'fancied her' and how much it scared her. He was large and imposing, and always found a way to be around her. One day as a teen, she was left to watch the home alone, and he was there, and something terrible happened.

She would never define the terrible, only launch into a warning about men, all men. It was only later after she died that I learned from my aunt that she had been raped by this man. At 16 years of age, the same age it happened to me.

'Be careful -- you can't trust them, not one of them.' She would tell me.

Her experiences with men had never been good. She never got over those early experiences. No therapy to talk of in those days; you just soldiered on.

Mabel did her best to appear tough and strong on the outside, but she let me see her vulnerability when we were alone, or when it was just me and my cousin C. She would spend endless hours explaining to the two of us exactly how we should live our lives and avoid her pitfalls. Sometimes she'd cry.

Before she died, she gave me a notebook of poems she had written. No one had ever seen them. They were hauntingly beautiful and betrayed her very sensitive heart. My own father, her son, was shocked when I shared them with him after her death. He hadn't known. It was bittersweet for him to hear these words written by a woman who was so closed off emotionally in his childhood. A tiny glimpse into his mother's true nature, and it made him sad.

Every February 15th, I take a walk over to my Nana's grave. It's not even a block from my house. I talk to her, bring her some flowers or sometimes a poem I've written for her. I stay as long as the cold allows, and I kneel to say a few Hail Marys. It was her favorite prayer. The day she died I went with her in the ambulance. She held a small crucifix necklace in her hand, and a 'Hail Mary' prayer card in her bag. She closed her eyes tight for the ride to the hospital, but I watched her lips move the whole way there.

Nana, if you're hearing these words somehow this day, I want you to know how grateful I am to have known you. You made me feel loved and wanted every day I was with you. You let me in, and I know from reading your words how hard it was for you to open your heart to others. Thank you for the grace of knowing you. I await the day when I can once again sit on a porch with you and rock away our worries with a song. Happy Birthday.

(I wrote more about her here if you're interested.)


  1. a loving and heartfelt tribute. Happy Birthday to Mabel.

  2. Thank you for sharing the story of your Nana with us. She sounds like a lovely woman. There is so much to her story here. I think it would make a wonderful book.... you should think about it. I'd be first in line for a book signing. :) Happy Birthday, Miss Mabel!

  3. That was absolutely beautiful. How wonderful you are able to keep those memories close and be able to cherish them. My grandma died when I was 15 and spent the last several years of her life in a nursing home, so I don't have many memories of her at the house where she and my grandpa lived and raised my mom and my three uncles. I wish I did though.

  4. You love people so well. Odd that in the photos she does not seem closed off at all....she's beautiful.


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