When it comes to my Nana, it’s hard for me to adequately describe three things: how amazing she was, how much I love her and how much I miss her. Ellen Christina Quigley was born on January 25, 1919 and returned to her Creator on October 1, 2012. The greatest honor of my life will always be that I am my Nana’s granddaughter. Through the tears of missing her on what would have been her 100th birthday, I thank God for the immense and enduring gift of her life.
Perhaps I should start by explaining the photo that begins this post. Not surprisingly, it is my favorite photo of all time. During the fall of 2008, I had the privilege of living in my Nana’s hometown of Beverly, MA in order to care for her every day. This was a tremendous gift as my family has always lived at least 400 miles from our nearest extended family. I still can’t believe how fortunate I was to spend three months in the daily presence of my favorite human being. She had total cognitive function, but needed help with staying safe while going about her day. So obviously motorcycles were in order!
We had just finished lunch at Kelly’s, a roast beef sandwich spot akin to Anderson’s in Buffalo. Upon exiting the restaurant doors, we saw these two motorcycles parked right next to my Civic. Nana gave them an admiring appraisal and exclaimed, “Would you look at those motorcycles!” Nana went over to the blue bike and began inspecting it more closely. At this propitious moment, the owners of the bikes emerged from the restaurant. They were far from the stereotypes of my imagining: two diminutive women whose motorcycle ownership was only evidenced by the helmets in their hands. Fortunately, they seemed amused to find us so close to their bikes with Nana literally getting up in one’s grille. Upon realizing their presence, Nana looked up and cheerily introduced herself. Both women were charmed by her, as everyone always was, and introduced themselves in return. It turned out that the owner of the blue motorcycle was also named Ellen. And so it happened that Nana and I got a chance to pose on the motorcycles with Nana eagerly donning Ellen’s proffered helmet.
After the photo was taken, the ladies asked us if we’d like them to take us on a little spin around the parking lot. Nana’s immediate answer was an enthusiastic “Yes!” It was obvious that the motorcycle ladies had just met their new hero. I can still remember Nana’s eyes twinkling over the mouth guard of her helmet. At the same time, I could imagine my mother and my aunts’ eyes if they learned of any Nana/motorcycle escapades I had authorized or participated in. It was oh so very hard to remind myself that I was Nana’s caretaker and couldn’t be her fellow thrill seeker. Nana was very cute when I told her that we’d need to watch from the sidewalk as our new friends rode off: “It’s okay. She wouldn’t let me get a henna tattoo at the fair either.” The motorcycle ladies were still laughing as they waved to us from the road.
We see the mantra often: Live life to the fullest. So easy to say, but rather difficult to do. My Nana lived her life so fully that she had extra life left over that seemed to spill from her in bursts of enthusiasm and joy. She was always up for anything and often surprised us with her zest for life. One time we were passing Fenway after she was discharged from a Boston hospital after a week-long stay. Nana instantly realized that the Red Sox were playing an afternoon game. She immediately checked her watch: “Game probably started at 1:05. If we can get a reasonable parking spot, they might let us in cheap and we could catch 4 or 5 innings.” This elderly woman had just been through a lengthy and depleting hospital stay yet she was more than up for the chance to root for the home team.
Nana lived through the Great Depression, a World War and many other dramatic world events. She raised 5 children while holding a demanding job to help support her family, which never enjoyed financial comfort. She was a natural athlete who excelled at and thoroughly enjoyed every sport she tried. She had a can-do attitude that did not permit pessimism. In her presence, you felt that anything was possible and the world was a brighter place than you previously thought it was.
Among the many lessons my Nana taught me, the foremost one is to love people. Nana just loved people – family, friends, neighbors, strangers, etc. She would truly do anything for a person in need while thinking little and always last of herself. She wanted to know how people were doing and she really listened when they told her. She remembered people’s names with such acuity that it often startled them. She looked for the good in people and was not surprised when she found it. In turn, people adored my grandmother. It could be time-consuming to grocery shop with her. Not because of any mobility issues on her part, but because everyone we passed in the aisles would want to talk to her whether they knew her or not. She was just the sweetest thing. Nana loved people and how they loved her in return! When we took her to West Beach near her coastal hometown, the parking lot attendant would sound the call: “Ma Quigley’s here – make way!” and you would think the Queen of Something had arrived.
Less than 10 years before we lost her, one of my cousins conducted an interview with Nana. I’m so grateful that he did this because her answers are such a lasting gift to us. My favorite is the following Q&A:
What advice can you give me that would help me to live a happy and successful life?
Study. Gain as much knowledge as you can. You never know when it will come in handy. Keep your mind on your work and retain as much of the information as possible. Be honest with yourself and others. Live a good life and live your faith. Follow the Golden Rule. Appreciate yourself for who you are. You know what is right – don’t stray from that. Just do it. Keep company with the right kind of people. Value your life – don’t let yourself down.
These words of wisdom continue to inspire me. Last summer, I thought of my Nana’s advice when I was wrestling with the idea of leaking diocesan documents. I tried to imagine what she would say if I could ask her what I should do about my dilemma. Then I could almost hear her saying, “You know what is right… just do it.” So I did.
Thank you, Nana, for all that you taught me and the innumerable, literally heartwarming memories I have of you. I miss you more than I can say, but I can’t wait to see you again in the life that will never end. I always loved it when you’d call me “your darling girl.” My darling Nana, I love you!
In an interesting twist that proves life is never boring, Bishop Malone was born in Salem, Massachusetts, which is the closest geographic neighbor of Beverly, my Nana’s hometown. In fact, they’re so close that there is a Beverly-Salem bridge that crosses the slender river separating the two towns. Bishop Malone was raised in the same parish – St. Mary, Star of the Sea – at which my Nana and my mother received all of their Sacraments. It was a neat experience to share this connection with my bishop and my boss. Sometimes he would talk about his hometown region and would mention a spot such as the Beverly Depot. I would smile and say, “Oh yes, over on Rantoul Street!” He would do a double take to hear such a unique street name uttered so familiarly by a Buffalonian. I would tease him just a little when fatigue would lead him to drop a couple “R’s” from his speech as a native Beverly/Salemite is wont to do. For Christmas the first year I worked for him, I gave the Bishop a few “Cat’s Meow” pieces of iconic Beverly buildings such as St. Mary’s itself.
He placed it on an end table near the “Distinguished Alumni Award” that St. Mary’s School gave him in 2009. I would smile when I saw it as I turned on and off his office lights every day. I thought it was so cool to have Beverly in common with the Bishop.
It’s a little less cool these days, I must admit. I cringed when I realized that the Red Sox had a chance to win the World Series on Sunday, October 28th for that was the night when the 60 Minutes episode about our diocese would air. I clearly remembered how all through that summer, Bishop Malone had eagerly watched as many games as he could. He is a true baseball fan who knows all the stats and watches games all the way through. He was very hopeful that the team would have a long season and win it big come autumn. I never root against my Nana’s beloved baseball team*, but I was hoping the Dodgers would win on October 28th so that the Red Sox could win the World Series on another night. Instead, the Sox won it 5-1 that evening. At the press conference I held two days later, I apologized to Bishop Malone for one thing only: ruining the World Series for him. I was happy that they’d won for him and for my Nana, but the timing was rough.
How I wish that I could share my Nana’s advice with Bishop Malone at this time:
You know what is right – don’t stray from that. Just do it.
Praying for you, Bishop Malone. Don’t let yourself down.
*Lest any of my fellow Buffalonians worry, I do not root for my grandmother’s other teams: the Bruins or the Patriots. Over the years, I often debated with Nana about Tom Brady and his henchmen. For such a sweet lady, she sure could talk some serious smack!