DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Family draws strength from its Irish matriarch
Mary Kate Rochford is as petite as a leprechaun. And she speaks with a lovely Irish brogue, which belies the fact that she has not been in Ireland for 75 years.
"She is an amazing person," wrote her great grandson Brian Drummond. As part of an essay for a class at Cardinal Mooney, sent to me by Brian's grandmother, he wrote, "She started alone in America and now has an immmediate family of around 50 people. She lives near me, in Youngstown, and I see and talk to her almost every week ... It is amazing that she still cooks, never forgets any of our birthdays, attends senior citizens meetings on Wednesday, and goes to church on Sundays.
"She is a very selfless person who is always happy, generous, and very independent. Even at ninety five, she hates to ask anyone for help. She is the strongest woman I've met in my life."
Now 96, Mary Kate still displays the strength her great grandson admired. She sits perched on the edge of a sofa in her daughter's Boardman home. Close by is a photo of her grandson Bobby Stoops, coach of the national champion Oklahoma Sooners football team. It doesn't take long to realize how important family is to Mary Kate. And even less time to realize how interesting her life has been.
Her story: "I was born in Cross Balina, in 1904, the second oldest, with one boy older," she said. Then a McAndrew, she and her five siblings helped in their father's tailoring business. Days were also filled with chores and babysitting. When Mary Kate was 8, however, life took a dramatic turn.
Her father went out on Killala Bay with some friends. That evening, a storm came up. Mr. McAndrew's body was brought home and laid upon the kitchen table. He had drowned.
"I hardly remember anything," she said. "Just that I saw my father brought in on a stretcher."
Pregnant and suddenly widowed, Mary Kate's mother debated how to raise seven children alone, one of whom was an infant, and still run the tailor shop. Her solution forever changed Mary Kate's life.
"All the girls went to a convent," Mary Kate said. "The nuns taught us there."
She learned Gaelic, piano, math and reading in her eight-year stay.
"We took dance lessons. We had a male master come in because nuns had the long gowns and couldn't teach us themselves!"
"And they taught me to knit and sew," she said beaming. It was a skill she used her entire life -- ultimately sewing clothing for her children and afghans for each of her 14 grandchildren. "My mother visited the convent once or twice a year. She raised the boys and sewed in the tailor shop."
Coming to America: At 18, she moved to her Uncle Tom's farm and made plans to journey to America, where she hoped she could eventually support herself. "My uncle in Lowellville, who had six children and worked on the railroad, wrote he'd take care of me," she recalled.
In his moving essay, Brian writes, "After some planning and financial help from her uncle, she was ready for the weeklong voyage across the Atlantic. Mary Kate left Ireland in the winter of 1925 with one suitcase and never returned to the place of her birth."
Mary Kate said, "I remember being on the big ship. We were eating and the table turned over. I wasn't frightened. When you're young, you're not afraid of anything."
Once in Lowellville, Mary Kate found a job as a nanny for the two children of a famous Youngstown architect named Owsley. Her days were spent knitting, sewing and caring for the children, while her nights were often spent socializing. At a local gathering, she met her future husband, Anthony Rochford.
What matters most: Asking her to look back over the last nine decades and tell what her greatest accomplishment was, she said, without hesitation, "My children." She had a boy and a girl, both in June, a year apart.
She and her daughter, Dee Stoops, can give numerous examples of Mary Kate's luck of the Irish -- a lottery won, a number guessed, a bingo card filled. But, unquestionably, the biggest lottery she won was giving birth to Tom Rochford and Dee Dee. I know this because when I asked, "In the 20th century, what invention, or innovation, or happening impressed you the most?" Mary Kate replied, "Dee having six kids and Tommy having eight!"
For the price of two births, Mary Kate ended up with 30 great-grandchildren -- one of whom is a talented young writer who admires his Irish great-grandmother.