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The Keenan Women: A Mother’s Day Reflection


Publisher’s Note

We enjoy celebrating Mother’s Day here at even though we recognize that this is a holiday filled with wonderful memories for many but anxiety over how to “honor” the mother in one’s life by others. Today we have the memories of the Keenan women who were mothers made of tough love, women who were admired and women who survived.  Our editor who creates Fashion Friday each week offers suggestions for those who want a gift to delight the mothers in their lives.  Post a comment and join the conversation with memories of your mother or your favorite Mother’s Day story.Patricia Yarberry Allen


The Keenan women from whom I descend are made of something very like steel. They wield a thousand-yard stare that can stop cold any child, misbehaving or not. My cousin Jen calls it “the look that separates flesh from bone.” We are known to be no-nonsense, unflappable, tough, stoic, independent, and resourceful. My cousin Liz suggests that we are “quietly domineering,” while my cousin Judy insists “we are very loving—even if we don’t want anyone to know it.” Whether by nature or nurture, and for better and worse, I’ve inherited these traits. It’s not hard to trace them, in a direct line, through my mother to my maternal grandmother, Lucy.

Lucy_1000-yard-stareThe Keenan thousand-yard stare, practiced by Grandma Lucy.

As family legend has it, one November day in 1939 Lucy informed her husband, Frank, not only that she was pregnant but that she was in labor. She gave him instructions for feeding their children, left the house, and took the trolley to the hospital. Three or so days later she returned home, again by trolley, with John, the couple’s fifth son and their tenth child in eighteen years. Those ten children went on to bring twenty-nine offspring—my siblings, my cousins, and me—into the world.

All-Siblings_1948 The Keenan clan in 1948 at the wedding of my Uncle Ed Keenan to Ann Raymond. My mother and Grandma Lucy stand to the right of the bride.

Because this family and their (our) ways are so familiar to me, it doesn’t really surprise me that my grandfather didn’t notice for nine entire months that his wife was pregnant. It doesn’t even surprise me that she hadn’t bothered to tell him. Times were tough in their household, and Lucy never did anything less than forge ahead and take care of business. Frank was not a reliable breadwinner, to say the least, and his children were fortunate that their mother never flinched from the responsibilities that rested on her alone. He sometimes drank away his wages, and even when Lucy rode the trolley to downtown New Haven to collect his pay before he could get his hands on it, there often wasn’t enough money to feed everyone. As the head of the household, Frank was served dinner before the kids and ate alone. Whatever was left was shared among the children when he was done.

In the stories my mother and her nine siblings have told about their parents over the years, “the old man” is peripheral and their mother is the central figure, loved and admired. “Mama was so brave!” my mother once exclaimed, recalling the time she watched from the window as Lucy dashed out in a raging storm to round up her children. In 1925, one tale goes, shortly after Lucy had given birth to her fourth child, a toppled candle started a fire that substantially damaged their apartment building. Forced to move, the family gathered up its belongings, which included a cast-iron stove, and packed them into a horse-drawn wagon. When they arrived at their new residence, Lucy, just two weeks postpartum, helped wrestle the stove up the stairs to their new apartment—a feat that earned her the nickname “The “Powerful Katrinka.”

ThePowerfulKatrinkaThe Powerful Katrinka.

When I was a child, we often visited Lucy on Sundays in her dark and old-fashioned house, with its rattly doorknobs and separate hot and cold taps. An old wringer washing machine on the back porch gave us a glimpse into how hard housewifery had been in her day. A battered percolator bubbled on the stove, a tiny Bayer Aspirin bottle screwed into the top in place of its missing glass bulb. Lucy was old-fashioned too. She wore a hairnet and had a wart in the middle of her forehead (good for anchoring that hairnet), and wore floral housedresses. She was soft-spoken and busy and not very talkative. In repose her face had a grumpy cast. But her green eyes could betray a conspiratorial gleam or a good-humored twinkle.

Kathryn&LucyGrandma Lucy with her daughter Kathryn in the early 1970s.

My mother, like Lucy before her, followed the prescription “import babies, export adults” when bringing up her own seven children. She too juggled an outsize load. She was a preschool teacher, and by the time my youngest brother was five, had opened her own school. At home she managed our household, cooked all our meals, and ran a tight ship as far as we were concerned, wielding discipline in a manner only slightly less rigid than that of a drill sergeant, and instilling in us a complex suite of manners and rules of etiquette. She was not amused when my youngest brother burst into laughter at the dinner table and shot not milk through his nose, but a strand of spaghetti. When a new friend invited me over in the fourth grade, having sat through the formal ritual of our evening meal, she worriedly warned me beforehand, “We don’t have manners at our house.”

NineKeenansLucyFuneralNine of Lucy’s children on the day of her funeral, in 1974. My mother, the oldest daughter, stands to the far right.

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  • Bill Altham June 5, 2016 at 11:48 am

    Your memories of these strong women took me into my own journey back to growing up among strong women in Alabama. Good lordy, it all brings up such joy and not a little sadness. I used to dream of writing a book based on the tales my Grandma Bottoms spun about life in northeast Alabama before and during the Depression (1930’s). Now I am pleased to have read your recollections and reflections. I’m also wishing for more!

  • michelle Hughes June 1, 2016 at 8:20 am

    I have learned so much from you Keenan women, a kind of balancing to my own family’s tendency to say anything that is in one’s hear or on their mind, to act on impulse, or to smother with love. Learning to keep one’s counsel, think ahead, and give a child space to grow and then fledge…these are the gifts I received through the legacy of Grandma Lucy, Alice, and the women who followed. Thank goodness for balance!

  • barbara maple May 14, 2016 at 8:17 am

    Your family was so different from mine as I was an only child and my mom a war widow and single. But the feelings you describe in your terrific essay were much the same. I didn’t have siblings but two sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who were a huge part of my life. So many good memories. And now at 72 with two wonderful daughters and the best husband in the world I count my blessings. I just wish I had written that letter to mom! ! However I’ve never loved anyone more and told her so over and over. Guess that counts. Thanks Amy

  • Deborah Keenan Stokes May 8, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    I enjoyed your article Amy. Thank you for preserving this part of our family heritage.

  • Roger Friend May 8, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Amy, A wonderful tribute beautifully written and so very spot on. Brought back many many memories. Thank you.
    Uncle Roger

  • Angela Judd May 7, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    Amy, wonderful article. Being one of the youngest grandchildren, I don’t remember much about Lucy. Remember the coffee pot, it was always on. But reading this article reminds me of my Mom, Rita. And realize the Keenan way has passed down through all the Women. Thank you for such great insight and a truly awesome article.

  • Kathy Coleman May 7, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Beautiful, Ame. Made my heart hurt.

  • Gloria cavallaro May 6, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    I’m Mike’s sister-in-law. I remember her and visited her a few times with Norma. This is such a beautiful tribute to her and the family! It brought tears, smiles and insight to this quiet lady!

  • Nancy Macagno May 6, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Great, vivid portrait of strong, tough women. LOVE the 1000-yard stare!

  • step May 6, 2016 at 11:45 am

    That you recognize something floating through your blood line that you call the Keenan legacy speaks to just how hard these mothers worked to instill values in their children. Your thoughtful and beautifully written reflections are a fine tribute to them. It’s also commendable that your brother had the ability to blow noodles through his nose. I wonder if this is a genetic proclivity or a talent one could learn. It would be a nifty dinner-party trick.

  • Elizabeth Prete May 6, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Thank you Amy. A true Love Letter for the proud tribe of Keenan women.

  • Liz Weiner May 6, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Amy, beautifully told, as always…I laughed, I cried, the true test. I feel the same mix of identification, admiration, criticism, and finally compassion for my mother and grandmother, and as you so touchingly write, only hope that we’ve progressed by adding more love and self-esteem but keeping the steel intact for our daughters. Thanks for sharing this — and now I know where the K. comes from!

  • Julia Spring May 6, 2016 at 10:52 am

    I don’t know…I grew up in that kind of line of competent women but I don’t exactly extoll it because the emotional tundra harms and is hard to overcome. When I was about 25 my mother said to me ‘I don’t understand why someone as competent as you hasthe need for therapy.’
    That’s it in a nutshell, Mom. Hope I have done better with my daughter.

  • Olly Cole May 6, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Wonderful article, Amy…where’s your photo?

    My daughter, Bonnie, says I still have that “look” that can “freeze” so-to-speak. Heaven knows how I acquired it, but it always worked when Bonnie (or anyone else for that matter) needed to be corrected…just ask her! I also know she inherited “the look” from me.

    I remember my Mother as a soft, wonderful woman who wouldn’t hurt anyone. I believe I have many of her traits and miss her every day of my life.

  • Esther Rosenfeld May 6, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Talking about your mom and describing her, brings her back to me in so many ways. remembering the feasts and Christmas and Easter, and the fun Sahana and then Eliza had with their cousins. Your “yulia” was Sahana’s favorite. I remember all with love and feeling so very connected to this Hughes/Keenan family, even though my upbringing was so very different as was/is my culture. Your mom’s steely intelligence and honesty made it work for me. I know that look, have seen it used, and the response it incurred. I’ve seen the love firsthand between all of you, your kids, and your parents, and have felt so privileged to have been given a seat at the table.

  • Elizabeth Prete May 6, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Truly a love letter about our heritage. We ARE amazing women. Thanks Amy!

  • Eric Gallinari May 6, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Excellent, Amy. And I know it’s not just a story. It’s the truth. Glad I’m with a Keenan/Hughes. Ps nice mother/daughter pic.:)

  • Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft May 6, 2016 at 9:38 am

    How proud Grandma Lucy up there, and your Mom down here must be of you Amy and of this beautiful tribute to them and to all women of their generation, really.

  • b. elliott May 6, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Your Lucy reminds me of my grandmother — wreathe of gray braids, housedress, and all! Love that you wrote your mother a letter. You will inspire many more to do the same. A lively homage. Your writing is so great you should consider a memoir!

  • Polly May 6, 2016 at 9:12 am

    What a wonderful tribute! I love these photos too…especially the wedding picture. It’s good to be reminded of a time when women were even less heralded than they are now, and Lucy sounds like a real hero.

  • kathryn keenan May 6, 2016 at 9:01 am

    beautiful article thank you amy.

  • Sherry Donovan May 6, 2016 at 7:56 am

    How I wish I’d met Grandma Lucy!