Love Letter to an Everyday Hero

Getting by on a little less fills you with a whole lot more, by Catherine O’Donovan 

Kathy O’Donovan is surrounded by love, clockwise from left: Kylene (in-law), Fayne (granddaughter), Shannon (daughter), Roshean (daughter), Shawn (daughter), Catherine (author), Kailtin (granddaughter)

I knew my mom, Kathy O’Donovan, was something special as far back as my memory allows. I remember being in awe of all her talents, maybe not always appreciative, but in awe none-the-less.

The down side of your mother being able to make everything and anything — including food, clothing, costumes, science experiments, sport equipment, school supplies, toys, and gifts — is that she will make such an item, thus eliminating the need to get it from the all-elusive store.

She used her talents not just for birthdays and holidays but as a source of much needed side-income, selling her creations at craft fairs to make Christmas affordable; and I for one remember being very motivated to help sell the merchandise.

I have memories of the pencil bag made from old jeans — which my children still use to this day, despite having travelled with me from Grade 3 to 12. The hobbyhorses my siblings and I used both for riding and beating each other with, sometimes simultaneously, also continue to live in my children’s playroom. Both are great reminders of how my childhood-self so greatly undervalued these things that are now my most sacred treasures.

And the homemade clothes that at the time I would have gladly traded for store-bought labelled outfits now stand as souvenirs of idol worship. They represent my high standards for what a mother should be, and remind me of my own lacking maternal talents — if I could just have the ability to even fix their clothing, never mind make it from scratch.

I would love it if my kids brought me torn outfits or costume emergencies to fix, but instead, they know what I did not at their age, Grandma will fix it, and that’s awesome.

Many of my memories began as childish insecurities about being perceived as different or not well-off because my things were homemade instead of purchased. Now they have transformed into memories of a super-mom who managed to raise 11 kids and find time, by sacrificing sleep and any hope of a social life, to make individual items for us. I’m sure if we had had the funds my mom would have gladly surrendered some of these tasks, but I would hazard a guess that she would still complete most of them herself because that’s just who she is.

Her superpowers weren’t just limited to cooking, sewing, and creativity but could also be found in her lessons of life and responsibility.

I always felt safe when it was only her nearby. Even when she was angry with me, I never feared her. I knew if she was upset I had let her down, and that was scarier than any punishment she might deliver.

My mother never shielded us from our mistakes or coddled us when we had to face up to something. But she let us know that we could right our wrongs and no love would be lost. It is an incredible superpower to set expectations high, but refrain from judgement, especially given our strict Catholic upbringing.

We were raised in a faith that held, and still holds, many strong opinions about right-and-wrong, and although it is undergoing changes, many still use Catholicism to pass judgement on people for the choices they make.

We were raised with high standards of Catholic living but my mom simultaneously conveyed a more powerful message of social responsibility, and the replacement of judgement with acceptance. There were no conversations specifically to this effect, but rather by living by example, my mother would admit to not understanding everyone’s particular personalities but in the same breath would invite them for dinner or donate to them if they were in need.

Although our house had its own trials and struggles we never turned away a person who was in need; they were invited in for dinner and maybe many more meals to follow. And although I know we filled their bellies, I sometimes wonder if they sought the family bond that filled their hearts with so much more.

Through all the hard times marked with financial strain, individual turmoil, and familial strife, the love of our mother filled the air and breathed resilience, empowerment, and strength into our hectic house.

I cannot pinpoint what she did or said that led her to raise eleven children that felt the world was at their fingertips if they just chose to work hard and go out and seek it, but the message was loud and clear; we did not have money or privilege or ease to pave our path into adulthood, but we had a hero with superpowers beyond explanation backing us up and guiding our way.

My siblings and I are now a group of adults that genuinely love one another and who have made ourselves into contributing members of society, all carrying some form of post-secondary education, all on a limited budget.

But what none of us can do, despite all our education, is make our own outfits, sew our kids costumes, perfectly fix a hem or jacket, and make a hobbyhorse.

We still come to her to sew our professional pants and make clothes for her grandkids, which comes with the best label of all — With Love from Grandma (or Mom)! 

Catherine O’Donovan is child number 7. Contact her via [email protected]

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