By Jim Towey
My phone rang toward the end of our annual Aging with Dignity Christmas dinner. I received the sudden news that Rhodora Donahue, one of the greatest matriarchs of this era, had gone home to God peacefully, holding the hand of one of her grandchildren as she let go of life.
She had 84 grandkids. You read that right. 84. As the mother of 13 children, she modeled the joy and richness of motherhood and lived the wonder of family life. Her children were infused with the same principles and ethics that governed her remarkable life: love of God, country, and neighbor. She was thoughtful of others to the very end and had prepared them for her passing. Her son told me that the Five Wishes advance directive that she had filled out “drove the bus” during her dying days in hospice.
Rhodora’s funeral will be next week, and I predict the Cathedral in Pittsburgh will be jam-packed, not just because she was so beloved and admired, but because when she left the world, besides her children and grandchildren, she left behind 168 great-grandchildren!
Caring for others
These descendants were the pride of her life. When you saw her, she immediately updated you on the current tally of “greats” as she called them. She knew the importance and power of doing little things with great love. She had a lifelong habit of handwriting her letters. She remembered birthdays of every member of her entire tribe, as well as the wedding anniversaries of outsiders like my wife and me. Well into her nineties, she knew her family and friends by name, face, and history. She was a gift giver. She held tight to her Catholic faith and had a deep devotion to the mother of Jesus. She was fiercely protective of her family but also challenged them to be better, give more, and love until it hurt.
How I will miss Rhodora! She was unfailingly cheerful – even after her husband of 70 years, Jack, predeceased her five years ago. He, too, was an American original, a West Point graduate who became the number one pilot in the Strategic Air Command before building a business empire that enabled him to quietly donate hundreds of millions of dollars to a myriad of charities. Jack and Rhodora were an inseparable pair, and when he left her side for his eternal reward, Rhodora soldiered on, fully confident that her sweetheart was in heaven and would await her arrival. That reunion happened yesterday.
End of an era
I awoke this morning feeling that Rhodora’s death may have closed a chapter in American life once characterized by aspirations forged through marriage, family life and motherhood. She and Jack were of a generation that saw getting married and having children, or shepherding others, as the primary path toward human flourishing. So much changed in American culture during her lifetime. Divorce rates have risen, birth rates have fallen, abortion, birth control and pornography are treated as passé by many, and fewer young people think of making a lifetime commitment to another person, much less having children, and devoting their lives to them. “The View” episode today (don’t ask me how I stumbled upon the broadcast!) had Whoopi Goldberg explaining her divorces by saying she discovered she simply didn’t want to share her things. All the panel downplayed marriage’s importance as a social institution and the statistically proven optimal relationship for the raising of children.
If marriage has been minimized, motherhood has been mauled. This once-esteemed state is now routinely demeaned, if not ridiculed. Some even use the term “birthing person” as a substitute for the hallowed title of “mother.” Not long ago, Apple produced an emoji of a pregnant man. Such insanity finds ready acceptance by some Gen Z and younger folks.
Glory of motherhood
Christmas recalls the loveliness of maternity. This season centers around Mary of Nazareth and her unborn child. Rhodora Donahue’s life, too, is testimony to the radiant beauty and high calling of motherhood. Her legacy of maternal tenderness to her offspring and theirs, untiring strength as she exhausted herself for others, and Christian witness to a love that has no limits, will live on into eternity, as all things from God do. Merry Christmas!