A Eulogy for Mary Hynes 04/21/2011
Written and delivered by her son, Jim Hynes, at the United Church in Big Rapids, Michigan, on April 16, 2011.
Mary Hynes was not one person. My mother contained multitudes.
In the beginning, she was Manda Byelich, the daughter of immigrants, her father a coal miner and factory worker and her mother the full-time mother of eight, of whom Manda was the last, the one in family photographs who squinted at the camera in her big sisters’ hand-me-downs. She was a sister, one of the close-knit trio of the three youngest daughters, whose friends used to stand outside and call for them to come out, chanting their new, Americanized names in sing-song, “Annie! Millie! Mary!”
My mother was a poor kid during the Depression, who only saw her first movie because the slightly better-off parents of a friend of hers took her with them to see King Kong, and what she remembered from the movie was how shocked she was that Faye Wray, giant ape or no giant ape, allowed her slip to be ruined, because a slip, especially a new one, was hard to come by, in my mother’s experience.
Then she was a teenager during one of the first generations to celebrate teenagers, on the one hand a bright young woman who was the sports editor of her high school newspaper, and on the other, a hormonal bobbysoxer who hitchhiked with her friend Donna to Detroit and screamed herself hoarse over Frank Sinatra at the Fox Theatre.
My mother was a college student, briefly, but mainly she was a working girl, starting at Sears in Lansing and working her way up to be personnel manager, where in 1949 she interviewed a veteran named Glendon Hynes. She didn’t hire him, but he called her up and asked her out, and because she was intrigued but sensible, and because she could, she pulled his application and checked his references. For their first date, he took her to the Ionia Free Fair, where she thought they spent not nearly enough time on the rides and way too much time looking at the livestock. Somehow she married him anyway.
For a long time after that, my mother was a wife and then a mother, three times over. Having grown up poor, she insisted on a certain standard of gracious living—no milk cartons or ketchup bottles on the dinner table—but she was also high-spirited and even goofy, a mother who wrote clues for Easter egg hunts in rhymed couplets, who dyed her sons’ underwear green on St. Patrick’s Day, and who put books of stamps in her grown sons’ Christmas stockings every year as a not-so-subtle reminder that it wouldn’t kill you to write your mother once in a while.
Along the way, my mother was a friend, an aunt, a parishioner of this church, a member of the city planning board, a bookstore employee, a volunteer, a taxpayer, and an indifferent cook, if you want to know the truth. She was a lifelong fan of the Detroit Tigers who could quote you “Casey at the Bat” from memory. She was a singer, whose repertoire encompassed hymns and show tunes, which she sang when she was ironing or doing the dishes. Later in life, she became a fan of Bruce Springsteen, changing her allegiance from one singer from New Jersey for another, from the Chairman of the Board to the Boss.
My mother was, in her own quiet way, a feminist and an intellectual, who helped lead the effort to erect a monument in Big Rapids to Anna Howard Shaw. She was a joker, who once returned a particularly racy John Updike novel to a friend who’d loaned it to her only after wrapping it up in a plain brown wrapper, who commemorated the sinking of one of my brother Tom’s model boats by presenting him with a birthday cake with a toy boat upended in the frosting, who could laugh herself breathless over one of her own stories, usually told at her own expense. My mother was a writer, who went back to college in her late 50s to earn her journalism degree, and she was a newspaper columnist who was equal parts Erma Bombeck and James Boswell, chronicling with wit and affection the events of the town where she lived and her adventures with the man she immortalized as the Old Professor.
Later in life, probably later than she preferred, she was a mother-in-law and, at last, a proud and loving grandmother. And then, much too quickly, she was a caretaker, who eased the passing, as best she could, of her husband of more than half a century. Then she was a widow, who used her wit and her talent to capture his essence in three words, the perfect epitaph. And in the last year when she could still look after herself, she became, by the grace of my brother Michael, a European traveler, who saw Rome and Venice and who returned to the village where her parents had been born.
In the end, my mother was a mystery, as age and disease led her down a path where no one could follow. One by one, all the people she had been before—grandmother, mother, wife, writer—they all fell away, and she became younger as she became older, returning to earlier memories and earlier selves before, in turn, she shed those, too. Her wit survived longer than some of her other attributes: early in her dementia, when we foolishly tried to argue with her about what was real and what wasn’t, we would sometimes try to convince her that our father and her husband was really, truly dead, even to the point of showing her his death certificate, and she would say, with Serbian stubbornness, “Well, he came back.” And when we said, nobody ever comes back from that, she would say, “Well, you know your father. He never lets anybody tell him what to do.”
But mainly I will remember my mother as a storyteller, as the one person, more than any other, who taught me how to tell stories. And so I will end with a story. The last time I saw her alive, last August, I sat with her and my brother Tom for three nights in a row in her room, watching television. She could no longer speak, and she was very frail, just a shell, and for the first two nights of my visit, I wasn’t even sure there was a person in there anymore. But on the third and final night, we watched a live TV production of South Pacific, one of her favorites, and I could tell from the way she lifted her head a little higher, and from the faint but discernible brightness in her eyes, that she recognized a least a little of what she was hearing. She looked rapt during the serious songs, like “Bali H’ai” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” but more significantly, I saw her smile during the funny ones, like “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” She may not have known any longer why they were funny, but even now, after her memory had all but exhausted itself, and after all the other people she had ever been had disappeared, there was still a little spark, a little inextinguishable essence of Mary Hynes that still knew they were funny, and so at least I can say, that the last time I saw her, my mother was laughing.
In which I mostly write about books, movies, and TV. An all-purpose spoiler alert: Sometimes I will talk about these works on the assumption that the reader's already read or seen them, so if you haven't, be forewarned.
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