Monday, December 6, 2010

Matrilineal Monday: A mother lost: Mary Fitzpatrick Ball

The image of the mark on her mother's face is forever emblazoned on my mother's brain. You can tell by the look in her eyes each time she talks about it, at exactly that moment, she is seeing the mark and remembering what followed from it. This loss had a impact so profound for my mom that I will never truly understand it. My mother describes the mark in precisely the same way each time she mentions it, and she gestures to show on her own face exactly where it was, followed always by the exhortation, "God Bless the mark". She says, "A slender purple line, with blue and grey behind it, going from here to just there", and I imagine the colours soft and smudged like those in a Monet pastel.

They say that women learn how to be mothers from their own mothers, but for my mother the lessons never took place, because she was only five years old when her mother died. Mary Angela Fitzpatrick Ball died of blood poisoning, the result of an infection at the site of a cut, possibly made by the very tiny fingernails of her young baby John.

My mother's memories are the memories of a five year old child. She does not recall the neighbourhood women coming to the house to prepare the body and lay out her mother in the bed Mary Ball shared with her husband for almost sixteen years. All of the mirrors were covered over with black crepe fabric, the death announcements were rimmed in black paper, and each man wore a black arm band on his sleeve, but these details are not recalled by my mother. Intellectually she knows each one of these rituals were a part of that day, but her memories are the emotional memories of a child.

There was a very pretty dress donned for the occasion; Mom does not recall its colour, only the white lace collar that felt slightly itchy against her skin. My mother and her sisters wore pristine white knee socks and black hornpipe shoes. She remembers the stilled faces of the adults, and their hushed conversation. She remembers standing on tip-toes with her sisters Bernadette and Kathleen, looking out the window each time the funeral cortege passed their house, as it ritually circled the block once, twice, three times. She remembers the muscular black horses, the steam emitting from their noses, the tall black plumes which crowned each of their heads, the sound their hooves made as they struck the cobbled pavement. For my mother these moments are locked in time.

My maternal grandmother Mary Fitzpatrick Ball died 18 December 1936, seven days before Christmas. Penicillin, which could have saved her, was invented in 1928, a full eight years before her death, but it was not widely available, so she was not treated with it. When we talk about the loss of my grandmother I never mention how unfair it was, because somehow that detail seemed unimportant. Only the memories of this five year old girl matter.

Maria (pronounced Mariah) 'Mary' Angela Fitzpatrick was born 22 June 1894 in Swords, County Dublin, Ireland. She was the second born child, and the first born daughter, of Thomas Fitzpatrick and Maria Hynes Fitzpatrick. For almost sixteen years she was married to Patrick Ball, for whom she bore eight children. When she died Mary was 42 years old. Her youngest child John was less than a year old, and her youngest daughter Kathleen was two; neither one has any memory of her. Her eldest son Anthony had just turned thirteen.



  1. What a sad, sad story...I'm surprised that at the age of 5 your mother had the memories she had of this terrible event. We are blessed today that modern medicine has come as far as it has...

  2. Such a sad story, but you tell it so eloquently. Thanks to you and your mother for sharing it with us.

  3. I'm so glad that you have preserved your mother's memories; this is one of those accounts that will truly help your grandmother's descendants to understand life and death in those days. Beautifully written and very touching.

  4. Hello Mary, Shelley, and Greta, Thank you for your lovely comments on this post. I really appreciate them. Cheers! Jennifer

  5. Thank you for sharing this and preserving your mother's memories of her mom. It was a very moving story told from the perspective of a child - which is not a perspective we often get to hear.


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