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Family Talk: Great-grandmother influences family with love, heritage

Great-grandmother Maggie O'Keefe never failed to ask, “Can I fix you something to eat?” [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

Great-grandmother Maggie O'Keefe never failed to ask, “Can I fix you something to eat?” [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

Sure and you'll be celebratin' St. Patty's Day on March 17, now won't ya? I'll be celebratin' too, don't ya know, seeing how my great-grandmother, Maggie O'Keefe, was one of the influential people in my life. If I didn't wear green on March 17, she'd be takin' the shillelagh to me!

Everyone should have an influential older person to speak into their life. I was blessed with Maggie O'Keefe. Maggie was Irish through and through, immigrating to America on a wooden sailing ship with her young daughter, my grandmother. And while she never lost her Irish brogue, she was as proudly American as any native born daughter.

I visited Maggie often in my growing up years. Her house was not far from my school. She never failed to greet me with a smile and a twinkle in her eye. Close behind her cheery hello was the question she never failed to ask, “Can I fix you something to eat?” Who could refuse her fresh baked bread or any other delicacy that came out of her old fashioned kitchen?

What lessons did I learn from Maggie? Many. Here are a few:

• Celebrate your heritage. No St Patrick's Day was complete without stopping by Gram's with a card and a gift. Perhaps a green plant. Or green flowers. After Gram passed, my mother, who was in no way Irish, decided that she should inherit the celebratory gifts of St. Patrick's Day. And so it happened that we made mom the honorary Irish matron of the family despite her lack of Irish lineage.

• Start each day by saying, “Top of the mornin' to ya!” That's a traditional Irish greeting, and Gram was always enthusiastic about what each day might bring, even into her 90s. Her life had been hard. She outlived two husbands and three children. She knew dire poverty. But she remained optimistic and trusting in God, regardless of her circumstances.

• Enjoy good food with family and friends. Gram thought the visit of any person — or any number of people — warranted breaking out food. She always hosted our huge family Christmas gathering with a banquet that bowed the table legs. Whatever the occasion, the food and the fellowship was to be savored and not rushed. “Sit down and let me fix you something to eat” was her ever present mantra.

• Love deep and long. Gram lost one of her children, a boy named Jackie, at the tender age of 8. She never got over it. On many occasions, Gram would tell me she had a dream about Jackie the night before and, in the retelling of it, she wept as if his death was yesterday. Strangely though, her tears were not morose. They were merely an expression of her long and deep love for him, even after 60 years. Gram taught me to love large even if it meant risking the pain of loss.

I miss Gram and I'll be thinking about her, and celebrating her, on March 17. She loved me deep and long. That's a heritage we should all pass along to our own families whether we're Irish, or merely wish to be.

Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at jpriest@sunbeamfamilyservices.org.

Jim Priest

Jim Priest is the CEO of Sunbeam Family Services, a 108-year-old nonprofit that provides a range of social services to support Oklahoma's most vulnerable people, including early childhood education, counseling, foster care and senior services. Jim... Read more ›

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