Remembering Katy Byrne

Many of my friends have asked about the tribute to my mother-in-law, Katy Byrne that was delivered by her son, Sam, at the memorial service. I have re-posted it here, with his permission. The remembrances of Sam and his siblings struck the perfect balance of love, laughter and tears.

“Katherine O’Donnell was the youngest of three children, spending her early summers in Kennebunkport Maine, playing on the beach with her big brother Paul and beautiful sister Mary. Music was a central theme in the O’Donnell household, something that stayed with Mom her entire life. She had the truly remarkable ability to remember the words to nearly every song she heard, and always was quick to spontaneously belt one out when any piano could be found.

Mom knew hardship, losing her father at the age of 14, and she had to then develop a work ethic that she held her entire life. A very brief stint in the Convent reaffirmed her desire to get out and work in the world. After attending college for a year, she developed a highly successful career spanning politics and real estate. She married my father in 1961 and they embarked on building a life together, soon to be quickly filled with children and always accompanied by piano music. My parents settled in Marblehead and that is where they stayed for the next 50 years, taking time to travel and spending the colder months of the year in Venice, Florida.

But it wasn’t what Katy did, or what she said, but how she made you feel that made her an amazing wife, mother, grandmother and friend.

Our earliest memories of Mom were as young toddlers on hot summer nights when the thought of air conditioning would have been as foreign as color television. She would rub our backs with cold washcloths until we fell asleep—a simple example of her compassion, and just a foreshadowing of the life of service and caring for others that we would grow up in.

Her generosity knew no boundaries (sometimes to a fault). One of Sarah’s and my early memories was delivering surplus government milk and cheese to the elderly in downtown Lynn in the nascent days of meals-on-wheels. We both recall visiting most frequently with one of her ‘clients” Mable Grant, who was well into her 90s and without any family. Katy told us then that “no one should be alone all the time.”

Through Catholic Charities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, our parents took in young unwed mothers during their pregnancies and Katy was a second “mom” to all 9 of them. She wrapped them all in unconditional love completely. Ever non-judgmental, Katy created an environment of love that was an exciting, sometimes crazy but always wonderful one in which the four of us would grow up.

Mom also took in “strays” as we affectionately came to calling them, including a beautiful young college girl from Kenya [Jane], a homeless French circus performer [Celia] that she met on the subway, and a young Irish girl [Deirdre] who served my parents at a local restaurant and needed a safe place to live.

There were many more, including a young man waiting for a kidney transplant, a mysterious man in a turban who lived in the carriage house and a nutty Swedish exchange student who had a penchant for writing obscenities on the bathroom mirrors in red lipstick. I know some of you are here today, and my sister points out that a couple are also likely still in prison. All were welcome into our home and none were ever judged, and simply by example my brothers, sister and I received the best life lessons. Assuming Matthew:25 has it right, there is an enormous spot for Mom in heaven.

In December, Mom and I were having a conversation about death and the mystery of life. It wasn’t the lightest moment we had together. But she finished the conversation by saying that “what really troubles me about death is that I will be up there watching you all having a great party and I will be pissed off that I am not part of it”.

Mom wouldn’t miss a party. She was the consummate hostess (if not homemaker), the light in the room and the first voice at the piano. We fondly remember the parties – the musical festivals filled with all sorts of characters and interesting instruments, the summer evening clambakes on our giant front porch where all our friends were welcome, and the annual “post-midnight mass champagne parties” that ended at sunrise on Christmas day with Mom and Dad struggling to balance headaches and putting together bicycles and the overbought toys for under the tree.

Many of my brothers and sister’s childhood friends have reached out in the past few days to reminisce about those wonderful parties, and tell us that Katy Byrne was the first “first great Mom to all of us growing up” or that “I loved her immediately and totally”.

Katy was an exceptionally loving friend to the many great women who came into our lives as acquaintances, real estate brokers or customers or new neighbors (here and in Florida) and who all ended up being Mom’s “best friend” and continue to be so today. Her friends can elaborate more on the adventures that they took on the boat, or to the sandy beaches where Katy holed up in the casino all day with the one armed bandits and then spent late nights out on the town.

Her inclinations to be on the lookout for a casino at every turn also provided entertainment for us, including one time that my 13 year old brother and I joined my mom on an adventure in the French alps to find a casino advertised in the local paper. After an hours-long train ride and walk through the town of Aix les Bain, we found the casino closed to the public and Mom got in an argument with the proprietor, attempting to have him let us in. It took me a while to understand the French, but I had to delicately explain to Katy that she had taken us all to a brothel and the owner was highly offended by this American women bringing her two young teenage sons on such a “cultural excursion”.

Mom loved an adventure, a party and her expansive, ever growing group of friends, who have all become extended family to us. Her desire was to share joy with everyone she came in contact with, and in that she triumphed.

Married for 54 years this April, our parents love was the foundation of our family. There was no lack of affection in their relationship, with Mom often describing to us how she had “adored your father”. I know he feels the same of course, describing her simply and fittingly as his “wonderful wife”. Our parents didn’t fight or bicker (Dad just pretended not to hear if they did), but simply loved one another. My brother Jay describes being very young and watching them go skating in the evening on the pond behind our house, holding hands in their early 1960s black wool pants and sweaters gracefully enjoying each other’s company after they had put us all into bed.

Mom was also our greatest cheerleader and supporter, she always greeted my brothers, sister and me with “hey handsome” or “hello beautiful” or “you gorgeous thing”, and those small, consistent messages, right through our adult lives, defined her relationship with us. She shared in all of our successes and comforted us when we faced challenges.

She adored her grandchildren and had a special relationship with each of them. She brought music into each of their lives in her own special way and one could not ask for a better grandma. Following Proverbs, we all entrusted our hearts to her, and we truly did have an unfailing prize.

I realize death is the ultimate paradox, the only thing that we can take with us is the legacy that we leave behind. Katy Byrne left a spectacular legacy. My talented brothers, beautiful sister, loving and devoted father and 9 kind and compassionate grandchildren. It wasn’t what she did or said, but how she made us feel, which was always special. The world is a better place for her having been in it. She lives on through all of us, and is as close as to us today as our next heartbeat.

We love you Mom.”

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