Eileen Charlotte O’Donnell was born in 1939 on the west side of Cincinnati. Her mom was an American girl of Irish descent. Dad was an O’Donnell from Donegal. Dad passed on early in Eileen’s life, so she grew up in a household with her grandparents, my Great-Grandma & Grampa Ritter. Great Grandma “read the cards”, kinda like a fortune teller. I wonder if she ever foresaw what life had in store for Eileen.
Eileen was raised Catholic, which was more or less the only game in town on the west side. Just about every couple blocks had a church, a bar and a chili parlor ( never mind, it’s a Cincinnati thing). Actually, that hasn’t changed much. Mom went to catholic grade school & Elizabeth Seton catholic girl’s high school, located right next to Archbishop Elder catholic boys high school, which is where yours truly barely graduated many years later. Eileen did what you were supposed to do in that place at that time. She met an Elder boy, fell in love, got married and had kids. 5 of them to be exact. And I expect that she figured her life course was set at that point. Stay on the west side, stay married, raise the kids, have a crop of grandkids, etc. Because that’s what you did in that place, at that time.
Then the script got flipped.
She found herself divorced, with 5 kids, a high school diploma and no work experience.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. I can’t imagine how afraid she must have been, how uncertain the future looked. She got help, but on a day to day basis she was raising 5 kids and trying to earn decent money. And you know what?
She did it.
She got a job with a large company. She worked there. She raised us kids. And you know what else she dd?
She lived her life.
She got involved in her Irish culture. She participated in Irish-American organizations, rising to the office of National Vice President in the Hibernians. She traveled to her homeland in Ireland. She got us involved. 4 of us actually competed in Irish dance ( guess who wasn’t quite co-ordinated enough to..). We spend many weekend immersed in Irish music, dance & culture. I don’t think all 5 of us dug it completely, or to the same extent, but I know for me it opened my eyes to other cultures in general. Since then I have had a love affair with travel and other countries, people and lifestyles. Eileen gave me that.
I have been accused of not needing much of an excuse to have a party, or open a bottle. That’s because the leaf didn’t fall far from the tree on that one either. I remember several situations in my teens where I nervously snuck in the house at 2am, and Mom snuck in at 3.
She enjoyed her life. She loved, and was loved. She taught me how to throw a party, at least the kind of party I like. Things didn’t have to be pretty. Our house was usually in disarray, which we frantically tried to “deshambolize” before people arrived. That wasn’t important. It was important to have at least twice as much food as your guests could possibly consume, and a well-stocked bar. If Mom had shoes on, they didn’t stay on long, which prompted my Uncle to call her a “hillbilly”. The party would careen from stories to jokes to arguments to tears, like any good Irish party should.
Eileen put up with a lot from the 5 of us. We could be a pretty wild bunch. I was definitely no bargain. But she accepted us as we were. She actually took in “strays” from time to time. Friends of ours who needed a place to stay. She didn’t have the time. She didn’t have the funds. But she did it anyway.
Her acceptance of us extended throughout our lives. She never stopped worrying about us, and trying to help us. She spent money she couldn’t afford to spend without a second thought. Her selflessness amazed me. She accepted and loved her children’s spouses and the families that grew from these unions. When my brother’s boys played football, she lived and died with their teams. She never had that experience with her children, though she did actually cry in the stands the one time I pitched a game in little league. I was that bad. True story.
Other Eileen facts;
She was the best cook I ever met. From sauerkraut & sausage to pot roast to goetta, to cheesecake that has made me into the cheesecake snob that I am today. She was the best. Hands down.
She once, after the dissolution of yet another relationship of mine, told me that “if I was gay, it was alright”.
Her favorite Irish song was “4 Green Fields” .
She taught me that you can be a strong person, and yet cry at the drop of a hat.
Over the years, when I would visit Cincinnati, it never failed that when I was leaving, she would cry. I would try to crack jokes, or laugh, or remind her that “I’ll be back in ….” . But still she would cry. She knew I needed to go. She knew it was time, and I was happier going back to wherever I was, and doing whatever crazy project, show or job I was doing. And she was happy for me, knowing that I was happy. Didn’t matter. She’d still end up watching me go with tears in her eyes.
So now it’s my turn.
I know she needs to go. I know damn well that where she is going will be a better place, and that the last year here has been, frankly, horrific. I know that she will be happier, and I am happy for her. But I will say goodbye with tears in my eyes. Tears of happiness that this last part of her journey is over. Tears of sadness that I won’t be able to share my life with her, and make her laugh at my foolishness.
Safe travels Mom. And to paraphrase an old Irish blessing;
Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his Hand.
And to the rest of you,