Sunday, May 6, 2007

Norah O'Connor Laughland

As Mother's Day draws near it is easy to call to mind those who have "mothered" us. My grandmother, Norah O'Connor Laughland, played a quiet but vital role in the formation of my soul. It is only after having lived for many years without a grandma one fully grasps what it is to have one. As a young girl, I took it for granted that there would be a supply of Grandma’s Irish sweaters until the end of time. What a shock when the knitting needles and crochet hook were put aside forever. The shortness of life is incomprehensible to the immature and it seems impossible that certain people will not always be part of our sojourn. When they are gone, it is often many years before we understand the depth of their influence.

A reader asked me to share a bit about women whom I admire and who have shaped my spiritual journey. I am a Catholic because of my grandmother. She was the only Catholic among my grandparents; from Norah O’Connor the faith was passed down to me. She was a descendant of an Irish family who had suffered for generations under the harsh Penal Laws for their refusal to renounce their religion. My grandmother’s great grandfather Daniel O’Connor came to Canada from County Cork in 1821, seeking land and freedom. He carved out a farm called Long Point in the wilderness of Leeds County, Ontario and with his wife Brigit Trainor built a large family.

My grandmother Norah was born in Gananoque, Ontario on June 29, 1908, the feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. Her parents were Fergus and Frances Keating O’Connor. Her father was a country doctor, born on Long Point farm, who against all odds was elected the mayor of Gananoque. He and his wife later moved to Kingston, Ontario for the sake of their children’s education. Norah, the oldest of eight, was educated at a convent school run by the Congregation de Notre Dame and then at Queen’s University, both in Kingston. Never considered a great beauty, she had lovely blue-grey eyes, thick curling brown hair, and a bright smile. Shy but fun-loving and feisty, she wanted to be an artist or a doctor. Fine-boned with a light step, Grandma had a brisk, jaunty gait, even as an elderly lady, and a joyful laugh.

On August 14, 1935 Norah married Milton Laughland, a young pharmacist of Scottish descent, at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Kingston, in the “Lady Chapel.” They had five children. My grandfather rose to the top of a large pharmaceutical company and after living in Rochester, Buffalo and Seattle they eventually settled in Scarsdale, New York. When my grandfather died suddenly in the mid-1970’s he left my grandmother well-provided for and she could have had anything she wanted. She chose to live simply and frugally in a small flat. She became active in the Catholic Daughters and made many new friends, while being totally devoted to her ever-increasing number of grandchildren. She donated extensively to many charities and good causes, including the pro-life movement; the local Carmelite Monastery regarded her as a benefactress. She was constantly knitting, sewing, making crafts and clothes for her family and for the poor.

In the mid-80’s I went to stay with my grandmother in Schenectady while I was going to graduate school at SUNY Albany. In the evenings we would drink sherry or Scotch while listening to opera or watching television, discussing social issues and politics. Grandma would tell me stories of her childhood in Gananoque and Kingston, while we looked at her vast collection of family photos. Sometimes we disagreed but Grandma's point of view subtly molded me. It was during my time with her that I fell in love with the Catholic faith. To my grandmother faith was an intensely private affair but her quiet witness of good works spoke louder than words. She gave me her old Sodality Manual from the convent school that had a question and answer format of instruction. I began to realize that there was a lot about the Catholic teaching that I had never understood but it was all beginning to make sense. Then one day during Lent she suggested that I go to Benediction at her parish. “You will really like it,” she said. Having grown up in the charismatic movement with guitar Masses, I had only a vague idea of Benediction; my most concrete perception of it was from the Te Deum scene in Puccini’s Tosca. I went to Benediction and for the first time experienced the overwhelming conviction of the Lord’s Real Presence. The doctrines of the Church were accepted intellectually but at that moment they took root in my heart.

In the last decade or so of her life, Grandma’s mind failed, and she had to be moved into a nursing home. Her family, especially her only daughter, my aunt, supported her with constant love and care. It was a great trial for Grandma not to be in possession of all her faculties and great suffering for those who loved her to see her in such a state. She died peacefully on August 5, 2000, the feast of Our Lady of the Snows. At her funeral Mass the following passage from the Book of Wisdom was read:

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them…. Afflicted in few things, in many they shall be well rewarded, because God has tried them, and found them worthy of Himself.
(Wisdom 3: 1, 5)



Anonymous said...

Ooooh Elena PLEASE write a book on your family....I am intrigued and long to know even more.

I love reading biographies not just of the 'famous' but also of those who lived ordinary lives in an extraordinary way, with great flair.

Thankyou very much for sharing with me and all your readers your most extraordinary and unique family.

Yours in Christ,


elena maria vidal said...

Than you, Marie. I am in the middle of a novel about my Irish relatives. I plan to finish it this summer.

a thorn in the pew said...

I agree with Marie. That is fascinating and refreshing to see what an influence she had in shaping your faith!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Thorn, I am grateful for having been giving such a good example. May I always live up to it!!

Anonymous said...

I'll pray for her. Grandmothers are other-mothers, the ones we may be more ourselves with. I don't know how anyone lives without them.

:-) She sounds a jewel.