Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church
Kansas City's Jesuit Parish
1001 East 52nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64110
Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Tuesday, Mar. 12th 2019

You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught – March 12, 2019

Sunday marks the second anniversary of my mother’s death.  She died on St. Patrick’s Day.  And smack dab in the middle of Women’s History Month.  Below is the eulogy delivered at her wake by her oldest grandson, my nephew John Barry McCormally.  John is a lawyer and Chief of Staff for the Auditor of the State of Iowa.  He is married with two children.  He and his family are members of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Des Moines. 

We’ve already had this party. 13 years ago. We’ve already had a wake for Grandma Peg, for her 80th birthday party. We got together in Crapo Park. People came from all over the country. They said nice things about Grandma, and it was great. So I don’t have a lot to add, because we’ve already had this party. And we all know how Grandma felt about waste. The difference of course was last time that she was there.

And that was the point. That was the idea—so she could to hear the things people would say about her. It was her idea. For her birthday, she wanted a wake. We all just went with that, as if that made perfect sense. The first day Shayla met all the McCormallys was that day, and to her everlasting credit, she went with it too. You’re having a wake for your grandma … and she’s alive?

But it really did make sense. Especially when you factor in her love of literature and the Tom Sawyer reference … but still. It’s kinda dark…to have a wake for your birthday. But that was her sense of humor, and something that it took me a long time to appreciate …this wonderfully dark wit which could be so cutting, dripping with irony and yet somehow filled with love at the same time.

It was at that party that I first noticed something she had pinned to her bulletin board. She had typed the lyrics to “You Have to be Carefully Taught,” the song from South Pacific. I know it was something she had typed out herself—we all got postcard notes from her — notes banged out on the typewriter she begrudgingly used after a botched medical procedure robbed her of the use of her right arm. Every birthday, every anniversary — typewritten cards. I’d know something from that typewriter anywhere.

She used it to type out:
You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught From year to year, It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear You’ve got to be carefully taught.

I’m not sure how long it had been posted to her bulletin board. Sam had been in South Pacific earlier that year, so maybe the song was fresh in her mind, or maybe that’s why I noticed it. In the play, Lt. Cable sings it as he laments giving up the girl he loves because he’s afraid of racist attitudes, both his relatives’ and his own.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a different shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught.

It’s a song that is nothing if not ironic. Rodgers and Hammerstein were actually pressured to cut it from the play because people complained the song promoted interracial marriage. They refused to take it out, saying the song represented their whole concept of the show.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!

She had these lyrics—these subversive and ironic and dark lyrics hanging where she could see them every day — next to family correspondence, mementos and her “Impeach Bush” button.

In their own backhanded way, those lyrics reveal so much about her — a firm believer in equality and acceptance, keenly aware the importance of family, devoted to teaching children…witty….and with more than a hint of sarcasm.

Not long ago I met someone who worked with Grandpa Mac on Iowa Press. And he said, “Your grandfather, man did he have a caustic wit.” And I had two thoughts. 1) Caustic is a really good word. And 2), You should meet my grandmother.

It’s strange for me to encounter people who know my grandfather and didn’t know her. It’s seems unfair that his writings and ideas are so well preserved in newspaper archives while so many of her extraordinary sayings and thoughts are now consigned to our memories. His newspaper career undoubtedly afforded her benefits—like traveling to Russia and China and the Far East and entertaining the President at her home. But you can’t help but wonder what someone with her mind would have accomplished but for the gender norms of the time assigned to her by history.

After all, it was HER Master’s thesis on the Kansas Mental Health System — but it was him who got the glory. Her research was the basis for the work earned him the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. She was every bit his intellectual equal, and perhaps more importantly a steadying presence in what were undoubtedly chaotic and difficult times.

She was firm believer in helping others, and helping others find help, encouraging multiple trips to Hazelden, AlAlon, or the counselor. She extolled the virtues of mental health treatment well before it was fashionable, and her family got help that it needed.

Her work as a Head Start teacher was similarly rooted. 19 years of children from diverse backgrounds—all races, all creeds, all sorts of home situations…all carefully taught that everyone was worthy of an opportunity and helping hand.

Everyone, of course, but herself. She often rejected assistance lest she become a burden on others. It was perhaps her most frustrating fault. And she had others, to be sure.

She was demanding. She was stubborn. Her cutting wit could sometimes hit a nerve, making her seem momentarily cruel. She wasn’t afraid to play the guilt card. But she play often played that card on herself too…Never fully grasping that just her presence was enough.

A few years back my job was bringing me to Burlington on a regular basis, and I’d finish trial and come back to 2900, and listen to Grandma tell stories. Some of them I’d heard before—about growing up in Emporia, and working at her parents’ restaurant. The hardship of the Depression, the fear of the war and the determination that came out of it. Then one day she started telling me a story I’d never heard before.

It was about an aunt, Aunt Bert I think, someone Grandma had a lot of admiration for growing up because of her free spirit. Aunt Bert apparently ran away with the circus. And I wish I had written this story down because the details have escaped me, but Aunt Bert went to Kansas City, where she may have worked in a hotel and taken up with a bell boy who was later caught delivering girls to hotel guests along with their baggage, and maybe Aunt Bert was one of his girls…and it didn’t end well.

She tells me this story, then pauses for exactly the right amount of time, and says, “So like I said, you come from a long line of pimps and whores.”

And of course, what makes that so funny is the tremendous irony. Because whatever unsavory elements her family may have contained—carnies and call girls—or worse, lawyers and journalists — her family was a source of tremendous pride. It’s easy to see why. Her parents were strong hardworking people who instilled in her tremendous faith and the belief that work is love made visible. And her family was her greatest work.

This is an extraordinary group of people. Seven children, all exceptionally smart, well educated and accomplished individuals — but also, across the board, people of great compassion with an innate sense of fairness. They’ve raised another generation, of smart, compassionate individuals (if I do say so myself), who are now raising another generation of exceptionally smart and hopefully compassionate people, instilled with those same family values of justice and compassion and the lifelong love of learning that were passed to us.

The Library was the obvious choice for her memorials gifts — not only because they’ve been supplying her with a couple of dozen books a month for the last several years —but because the library is the repository of shared knowledge, which is something she prized… both the knowledge, and the sharing.

Think about this:
By the time Ellie and Mona, and Tessa and Natalie and Eve and Jillian are ready to head off to college, it will have been nearly 100 years since their great-grandmother earned a Master’s Degree. That by itself is a helluva legacy.

But it’s not her greatest one. She once told me, “You know, everyone talks about how all my kids are writers like their father. But really, they’re all teachers like me.”

And its true. Sean, Kevin, Timothy, Terence, Thomas, Mariann, Megan— have all spent significant time either in a classroom or seminar or church hall— filled with peers, colleagues, and students. They’ve all spent considerable energy sharing their time and talents, passing on their knowledge and experience to the next generation.

And that, to steal a phrase from the elder John McCormally, is the earthly definition of immortality … when our gifts and values are passed on.

We saw Grandma for the last time a week before she died. Her mind as sharp as ever, but her body causing her considerable suffering. Yet, there she was working to engage Ellie and Alex on their level, in her Head Start persona and the voice she adopted for young children, still ever the teacher.

To me she said, “We’ll see you again.” And that’s when I knew. For years, her farewell has been “As long as the good Lord is willing and the crick don’t rise.”

“Bye, Grandma, see you next time.”“As long as the good Lord is willing and the crick don’t rise.”

This time, the last time, it was “We’ll see you again.”

And of course she’s right. We’ll see her… as long as we’re accepting of others…willing to make room for one more at the dinner table… pursuing and sharing knowledge, and enjoying the blessings of this extraordinary family.

Because we were all so carefully taught.

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Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church
1001 East 52nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64110
Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

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