Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

May 11, 2008


Eighty seven years after my untidy separation from my mother's body, Mothers' Day, a week or so ago, conjured up much of what has lingered on in my memory. Cold winter mornings and three little boys scampered into mother and dad's bedroom. They jumped into the big doublebed. Five bodies shared transient body heat and much more than that. Residual marks remained, like a kind of spiritual DNA. Over many childhood years, there was invariably a box of Kellogg's corn flakes on the breakfast table. On the box, a sketch of a graceful female figure; beneath the figure, the words, "The Sweetheart of the Corn". It became my mother image and survived applications of yellow powdered mustard on tongues that had uttered a forbidden word. It survived, too, when a fight of three little kids dissolved into chaos and mother, holding down the telephone handle, called Throggs Neck 123 for the Children's Protectory "to send the wagon". We were frightened by "the wagon" as the French nobility in 1789 were frightened by the tumbrils that rolled towards the guillotine. "The wagon" would stop a fight.

Mother was from Brooklyn; dad from Marble Hill - "Nannie Goats' Hill" according to his father-in-law. We visited Aunt Retta and other relatives in Brooklyn, heard the trolley cars on Flatbush Avenue, read the funny sheets in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, hiding our deeply-rooted family affection for the NY Giants. Getting to Brooklyn, mother and three, fearless on the BMT subway!

She was an excellent cook. On Thanksgiving Day and other extended-family times, the three boys frequently were seated at an overflow card table. When mother's youngest and last child was arriving in February 1930, the newly proud father took the three brothers to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington Heights to see their new sister and how mother was doing. Until Mary was brought in by the nurse, we boys were mesmerized, looking out the window at the George Washington Bridge, then in construction. Seven decades later, in December 2003, our sister Mary lay dying at Calvary Hospice. Through the window, I could see the Throggs' Neck Bridge. A bridge at her beginning and a bridge at the end of her earthly life!

Unlike other Westchester matrons, mother never learned to drive. Frequent shopping trips saw mother and three boys walking half a mile "to the village" to catch the New Rochelle bus. First stop, Genung's for clothing; across the street, Thom McCann's for shoes; then Schrafft's for frosted chocolates; finally, Blessed Sacrament Church for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, light a candle, and, on Saturdays, go to confession.

During World War II, she was a reluctant Air Raid Warden. In tests, she would faithfully put on her tin hat and armband and report to her post, charged with ordering any one on the street to go indoors. I once asked her how she would handle someone on the street. She said she would take a walk in the opposite direction.

Mother was a beautiful woman, gentle, caring, faith-filled. My father, a partner in a Wall Street firm, had been quite active as a young man in his parish, St. John's in Kingsbridge. He had taught us three sons - the only parish altar boys from public school - the Latin responses for the Mass. He was enthusiastic about my entering the seminary. "The Sweetheart of the Corn" said, "If you think that's the way to go, fine. But celibacy, I have my doubts about that." Undoubtedly an indication of a happy marriage and a happy family! She was on to something, instinctively if not intellectually. My next blog post will reflect on priestly celibacy's origin, something of its checkered history, and my 63 years experience of what some ecclesiastics say is a great gift to the Church while others opine that it is a good mortification of the flesh, like walking on hot stones.