The Thinking 

Two Obituaries of Mothers

May 12, 2012


MY great-great grandmother, Catherine Garvey, was born in Castleblaney, Ireland in 1816. She married, moved to America, had seven children (two of whom died in infancy) and took care of her home in Pennsylvania. She became a widow at the age of 60 when her husband fell down the stairs in the middle of the night.

Catherine Garvey died in 1905 at the home of her daughter. She was 89. Her obituary in the Scranton Times contained a brief description of her life that is worth contemplating this Mother’s Day. It read in part:

Mrs. Garvey’s character was noble and grand. She centered her affection upon her family and made the circle of her home the embodiment of virtue and happiness and in her dealings with her neighbors she was always kind and charitable.

The newspaper article about her funeral included the following:

The funeral of Mrs. Catherine Garvey …. was held this morning in Dunmore. It was very large. She had lived in that town upward of 60 years and was known to all the people and held in reverence for her noble attributes of womanhood. With one accord the people turned out to pay their last tribute to all that was mortal of her and breathe a prayer for the repose of her soul.

A magnificent collection of flowers made into a wreath rested at the casket.

There were more than 60 priests at the funeral mass. Catherine Garvey was the mother of Eugene Garvey, the bishop of Altoona.

Twenty years later, her daughter, Mary Horan, died. The headline of her obituary was, “A Noble Woman.” Mary Horan never held any important paid positions in her life. It spoke mostly of her charitable works, and included the following:

Mrs. Horan, a woman of culture and refinement, whose family had attained a position of importance and standing not only in this but in other communities, gave freely of her time, her energy and her means in the promotion of St. Joseph’s Home and in other welfare institutions as well. She was the type of woman who commanded admiration and love. Her good deeds made the world better and will long keep her memory alive. [Our] charities and welfare institutions lost and outstanding supporter and worker in the death of Mrs, Horan.

I mention these obituaries not to boast of my relatives. I wish to show how dramatically standards have changed. Obituaries still praise women for devotion to their families. But they do not speak of “noble attributes of womanhood” nor do they affirm the accomplishments of women in private life in quite the same way. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period when motherhood was accorded explicit dignity and reverence as an institution. People did not speak of “soccer moms” or “stay-at-home moms.” Women became mothers, not moms. Motherhood, though often sentimentalized, was not a beautiful hobby, but a serious undertaking. The mother was similar to the soldier in that her vocation was  necessary for the protection and defense of nation and culture.

Catherine Garvey died the same year Theodore Roosevelt made his speech before the National Congress of Mothers. From the speech:

In our modern industrial civilization there are many and grave dangers to counterbalance the splendors and the triumphs. It is not a good thing to see cities grow at disproportionate speed relatively to the country; for the small land owners, the men who own their little homes, and therefore to a very large extent the men who till farms, the men of the soil, have hitherto made the foundation of lasting national life in every State; and, if the foundation becomes either too weak or too narrow, the superstructure, no matter how attractive, is in imminent danger of falling.

But far more important than the question of the occupation of our citizens is the question of how their family life is conducted. No matter what that occupation may be, as long as there is a real home and as long as those who make up that home do their duty to one another, to their neighbors and to the State, it is of minor consequence whether the man’s trade is plied in the country or in the city, whether it calls for the work of the hands or for the work of the head.

No piled-up wealth, no splendor of material growth, no brilliance of artistic development, will permanently avail any people unless its home life is healthy, unless the average man possesses honesty, courage, common sense, and decency, unless he works hard and is willing at need to fight hard; and unless the average woman is a good wife, a good mother, able and willing to perform the first and greatest duty of womanhood, able and willing to bear, and to bring up as they should be brought up, healthy children, sound in body, mind, and character, and numerous enough so that the race shall increase and not decrease.

There are certain old truths which will be true as long as this world endures, and which no amount of progress can alter. One of these is the truth that the primary duty of the husband is to be the home-maker, the breadwinner for his wife and children, and that the primary duty of the woman is to be the helpmate, the housewife, and mother. The woman should have ample educational advantages; but save in exceptional cases the man must be, and she need not be, and generally ought not to be, trained for a lifelong career as the family breadwinner; and, therefore, after a certain point, the training of the two must normally be different because the duties of the two are normally different. This does not mean inequality of function, but it does mean that normally there must be dissimilarity of function. On the whole, I think the duty of the woman the more important, the more difficult, and the more honorable of the two; on the whole I respect the woman who does her duty even more than I respect the man who does his.


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