Friday, May 13, 2011

Love and Prayers: Aunt Kath

A Birthday Tribute
by Mutt Ploughman

TO SAY THAT KATHLEEN WALSH has been a “presence” in my life is a little like saying the ocean is a presence in the life of a sperm whale. Technically, of course, it is not untrue. It’s just a wee bit understated. “Aunt Kathy,” or simply “Aunt Kath,” as she is known to me and numerous others, is a woman whose love, if you are lucky enough to have it, is something you feel everywhere you go. You don’t have to be with her physically, for I see her only on certain occasions. It’s just there.

I write this now while outside of my window a glorious Spring day is dawning over eastern Pennsylvania. Here I have landed, after living in Chicago, where I first came to know Aunt Kath; then New Jersey; then Cincinnati; then Georgia, Philadelphia, New Jersey again, and finally the Lehigh Valley, back in Pennsylvania. During that time, Aunt Kath has lived in the Chicago area; then Lansing, Michigan; then Lubbock, Texas; then in the Raleigh-Durham region of North Carolina, where she has remained for the last 23 years. I am merely one of her thirty-four nieces and nephews, not to mention an entire brood of grand-nieces and grand-nephews, too voluminous to name even if I was able to.

I list these varying places and phases of life because I want you, reader, to consider the first paragraph, above, in light of the second. It’s not as though I have seen a great deal of Aunt Kath in my time on earth so far. And it’s not even close to true that I am the only locus of her love and attention. Yet I still feel her “presence” all the time. One might think this tells you all you need to know about the wonder and witness that is my Aunt Kath.

In one sense, it does; but it also doesn’t.

AUNT KATH, WHO IS celebrating her seventieth birthday this month, does not have her own children. Yet she is to me the very essence of what “family” means and implies. I have in my possession a tiny, very old spiral notebook that was kept by her father, Joseph A. Walsh, containing notes from a spiritual retreat he made in 1940, before Aunt Kath was even born. The very first words he wrote in that notebook are, “Get the family spirit.” Aunt Kath caught that bug from both of her extraordinary parents, and has not been able to shake it for seventy years.

She is the fourth of nine children, all of whom are vivacious, unselfish, gifted people today (one is my mother, who landed about the same distance from the tree). With a couple of elderly relatives in the mix, she grew up in a household of thirteen, with four other sisters alone. How a young woman coming up in an environment such as this learns to distinguish herself, I can’t begin to guess. But what I know of her as an adult suggests that she understood early on that to make her “mark,” so to speak, she should embrace her workaday role in a family unit that was greater than its individual parts.

Thrust into this situation, you could either wander off into a thicket of bitterness and obscurity over the years; or, to put it succinctly, you could learn to pay attention to, and even to serve, the needs of others. If you consider the career my aunt ended up in, as we will do shortly here, you will understand the choice she made.

This is a woman who has embodied “the family spirit” her entire life, and how proud she must make her late father! By the time I came around, I was lucky enough to be just one of many beneficiaries in an extended family that included Kathleen Walsh. Here are merely a few examples of this experience:

• From the time I was very small in Chicago, Illinois, Aunt Kath used to take us (I have five siblings) on road trips in her car. She had a favorite brand of mints called “Velamints.” Every single time we left to go somewhere, she would produce a roll of them and declare in an enthusiastic voice, “Let’s start things off with a Velamint!” To this day we joke with her about that, and I cannot see any kind of mint, especially in a car, without remembering it. It made us feel included; it made us happy – no matter what mood we started out in. Did I mention Aunt Kath is smart, too?

• Every single year, about a month before Christmas, for as long as I can remember, Aunt Kath has sent an Advent calendar to my address. It didn’t matter if I was 5, 25, or 39 – an Advent calendar has always arrived in time. I know she has done the same for my other siblings, all of whom, like me, now have their own families. And she probably does it for my twenty-eight other cousins on her side, too. If I find myself feeling too harried and distracted as the Christmas season approaches, I know that at least one person will always help me remember what it’s really about.

• When I was a young man serving in the U.S. Army in Georgia, I visited her once at her North Carolina home over a weekend. There we were, an odd couple: a single military officer in his twenties and his aunt, hanging around her town. But it’s part of Aunt Kath’s nature to come to you no matter where you are in life, or in the world (see next bullet point). We have a mutual love for coffee, and I remember I was assigned at the time to an infantry unit nicknamed “the Sledgehammer Brigade.” So she brought me to a little drive-through coffee stand one morning that served a super-strong blend they called “the Sledgehammer,” and we spent that morning swapping stories over buckets of hot brew.

• In 2005, I took a vacation with my family (a wife and two daughters by then), plus two of my brothers and their families, to a beach house in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. When Aunt Kath got wind of this, she decided to come see us. But she didn’t merely visit. She drove clear across the state, after work, embroiled in a huge traffic jam of beachgoers. And she did it with a carload of food: a spectacular, homemade, family-style meal, including dessert, all prepared by her in her “spare” time. She then had to turn around and drive all the way back home when the meal was through.

• To this day, every note, card, or gift I have ever received from her signs off in the same way: “Love and prayers, Aunt Kath.” Love and prayers. Do we really need anything else? I tell you sincerely: those two words do not just make me think of her. In my mind, they’re more like synonyms for the words “Aunt” and “Kath.”

JESUS CHRIST ONCE SAID to his disciples, according to the Gospel of Luke, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” This observation always calls to mind my Aunt Kath’s career. From where I sit, it would be extraordinary enough if my tribute to her ended with the last point above. Yet there is her remarkable record of service to consider.

Aunt Kath has been a social worker for more than four decades and for the last 20+ years has served as the Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. What this means is that it is no exaggeration to say her entire career has been occupied with and driven by serving others – namely the poor.

Now, with this stalwart longevity to her name and her reputation, Aunt Kath is beginning to receive honors, commensurate with such lengthy and vital stewardship. She is the recipient, in recent years, of The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, a distinction shared by such luminaries as the Reverend Billy Graham, Maya Angelou, and Michael Jordan – the highest civilian award bestowed by the State of North Carolina. She has also been presented with the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from the Vatican, on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. Translated into English as “For Church and Pope,” this award is also known as “The Cross of Honor,” and it is the highest award given by the Vatican to the Laity.

When Aunt Kath received this award, she was asked to give remarks. Rising to the occasion, she declared by way of opening, “I greet you this evening with a joyful Alleluia to our God…..” Notice she did not say “to God” or “to my God;” she said “to our God.” He’s our Father, she reminded us. Get the family spirit.

I know Aunt Kath would not want me to carry on at too much length about these distinctions, which are, needless to say, richly deserved. But my familial pride in her is so great that in marking her milestone birthday, I feel I must express it in writing.

So let me put it this way: if I were among the needy of this world, I would want Aunt Kath looking out for me. And of course, at 40 years old, I know enough now to comprehend that in some ways, I am; and in every way, she is.

WHAT IF SOMEONE was to live each day as though everyone they encountered was part of their family? Kathleen Walsh’s first seventy years form a living answer to this question. May she live on for another seventy, filling the dining rooms, conference rooms, and vestibules of a lost world with her “joyful Alleluias.” For those of us wandering around that same world can always use her faithful love and prayers.

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