Eulogy for My Wife

Mary Ellen, my beautiful wife of 44 years, was laid to rest on December 23, 2019. These are my words of remembrance, delivered at her funeral mass.

Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey once reminded us that

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

I would like to share just a few of my memories of my life with my beautiful Mary Ellen. And I hope that later on today, and in the days, months, and years ahead, we’ll have the opportunity to share even more of them.

What was she like as a wife, as a mother, as the head of our house and home?

Please just read today’s first Reading, from the Book of Proverbs (31: 10-31.)  But don’t just read it through. Read a verse, stop, and ponder it. Update it to the present day. Then continue, in like manner, until you get to the end.

That’s what I remember about being married to her. Especially this verse:

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”

Her wisdom. Every decision of importance during our life together was made by Mary Ellen.

What do I remember about meeting her?

She was wearing a Northeastern jacket. It belonged to her brother Gerry. That got our conversation started. I might have said something about Northeastern hockey, I don’t know.

We were waiting in the corridors of Lyons Hall at Boston College. It was before Music in Western Culture, taught by professor C. Alexander Peloquin. She was pretty, friendly, very easy to talk to…and she had the most fantastic pair of legs.

She got those legs from walking across Boston. She had a part-time job with the phone company, down on Broad Street, and she’d walk all the way over to Park Square after work, meet her father as he was getting out, and be driven home by her mother.

I began looking forward to that class, just to sit near her and make small talk with her. I knew even then that this girl was different. I wanted to keep seeing her. But what could I do? The second semester of my senior year was ending, and I might never see her again. So I asked if she would like to be my date for senior week.  She accepted. Whew!

But we had to go on a regular date first. And I managed to make a great impression on her. Ultra-class. I took her to the Wonderland Dog Track and then to Charlie’s Kitchen for the cheeseburger special.  Mary Ellen showed her patience and tolerance when she stuck with me after that night.

On the way home from Charlie’s we stopped along the Cambridge side of the Charles. Just for a little while…to admire the Coca Cola sign across the river. There was also a submarine race in the Charles, and we took that in. But I behaved.  I was not going to let this one get away. This was the one. I knew it. And this was only our first date.

The first time I went to the Hughes house, I got to join the whole family – at least 12 of the 14 children — in watching home movies and slide shows. I can remember thinking – how am I possibly going to remember the names of all these brothers and sisters? And how do her parents do it?

Well, it wasn’t so hard for me to get the names and numbers right. But if was also evident that there wasn’t just one mother to take care of all those kids. There were two: Helen and Mary Ellen.

Even as a teenager, Mary Ellen was taking care of the younger kids. Especially the ones she called the three little boys – Joe, Frank, and Pete. Helen had it easier than you’d suspect. Because she had such great help.

Mary Ellen was born to look after others. It’s that simple.

One regret that she had about her childhood. She never had any alone time with her mother.  What she’d have given, she often said, to have just an hour or two of her mother, all to herself.

You’ve heard about our first date. I’d like to tell you about our most memorable date.

It was a BC football game. We had season tickets to BC, but we never sat together in the stands because I was up in the announcer’s booth. But we did go to some away games, and we liked when BC played Army up at West Point.

There was only one problem with going there. The seats you could buy through BC were always terrible. But one year, one of our politically connected friends suggested that he might be able to work his Washington contacts for some better tickets.

So he called the offices of representatives Moakley and Kennedy, and the folks at West Point were glad to oblige. Two tickets each. We got the ones from Kennedy’s office.

When Mary Ellen and I got to the stadium, they saw our tickets and directed us to a special entrance. From there, they escorted us to the superintendent’s box on the 50 yard line. It seemed that the people at West Point thought that Joe Kennedy himself was coming to the game. So, Mary Ellen and I were the special guests of general Howard Graves, superintendent of West Point, and his lovely wife Gracie.  Early in the first quarter the public address announcer asked everybody to welcome our distinguished visitors, congressman Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife. And 50,000 people in Michie Stadium turned around to look at us.

That was a memorable date.

How about the biggest thrill Mary Ellen ever gave me?

One night we were lying in bed. She had a big baby bump in her belly. And there had been a time when we were wondering whether there ever would be a baby bump. We had tried to conceive for more than a year before Mary Ellen got pregnant with Matthew.

So we were lying there, about to drop off to sleep, and she whispered, “Hey. Give me your hand.” And she placed it gently on her belly. And she said “Wait.” I didn’t have to wait long. I could feel Matthew kicking inside her. I felt so close to her, and to God, that night. The thrill was indescribable.

How about memories of Mary Ellen’s career as a teacher?

About ten years ago, I was sitting at the head table of a Gridiron Club awards dinner. The gentleman next to me had been named high school official of the year.

I asked what town he lived in. He said Milton. I said, “Oh, my wife teaches first grade in Milton.”

A double take. “Wait a minute. You said your name is Burke? Mrs. Burke? Your wife is Mrs. Burke?”

Out came his cell phone. He dialed his wife, who was sitting out in the audience.

“See this guy? He’s married to Mrs. Burke!”

The man’s wife came up to the dais after the dinner and told me how wonderful it had been for their children to have Mary Ellen as a teacher. It wasn’t the first time I heard that, and it’s not the last.

I can recall so many beautiful stories and examples of how Mary Ellen brought out the best in her students. And in her fellow teachers. We could be here all day.

Did you know that Mary Ellen is in a novel? One of her students has written three books already. The first one is a young adult drama called “The Land of Blue.” The heroine has a kindly math teacher named Mrs. Burke. Here’s what Mrs. Burke had to say to the protagonist after her grades began slipping.

“I know you don’t enjoy the material, Cassie, but I also know you are more than capable. I can’t help noticing that you seem somewhere else lately. Is everything all right?”

Now that’s true to life.

I also recall the story of a lady who said that Mary Ellen saved her son’s life. That’s only a slight exaggeration. In this case, the boy had some significant issues that the Milton Schools couldn’t address. An outplacement was needed, but nobody was helping to make it happen.

According to this lady, Mary Ellen was the only one who told her what her son was entitled to and how to go about getting it for him. And that wasn’t her job. But nobody else was doing it. And Mary Ellen stepped up.

More on the special-needs kids…long before they were talking about things like mainstreaming and inclusion, Mary Ellen would regularly invite the younger kids from the special needs classes to her room. They got to experience activities that they otherwise would never have seen.

And then there was the little boy who was doing very poorly. His grades were bad across the board and he was totally lost. He looked like a candidate for a special class too. But Mary Ellen sensed something about him. He wanted desperately to learn, and she felt it.

And the answer was simple. He needed glasses. His eyesight was so poor he couldn’t see the words on the page in front of him. And as soon as he had his eyes tested, at her urging, and got those glasses, his academic performance took off.  He did love learning. She was right. And she was so thrilled for that lad.

And that’s what gave Mary Ellen the most satisfaction. Not what they learned from her. But that they gained the confidence and the ability to go out and learn for themselves.  And they took to heart her mantra: “Burke Means Work!”

I mentioned that she was born to care for others. She was also born to teach others. She was, as her Jesuit education would always promote, a person for others.

I would like to close with some poetry. I’ll quote a portion of one poem, and I’ll read another.

The first is a long poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning

Mary Ellen was fond of quoting the first lines of that poem.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.

It frequently came up when we were preparing our talks for whatever session we would be leading in the Marriage Preparation Program at our parish. And sometime when we were just talking ourselves, about our future.

Here’s the whole of the first stanza.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

I don’t think I need to tell this to those of our generation who are sharing this celebration of Mary Ellen’s life today. But in honor of her, I’ll remind you anyway. You are in the last of life. And you know it’s the best part. Savor it and love it, every single day. And do trust God, see all, nor be afraid.

Up to now I’ve spoken about Mary Ellen. Now I’ll speak for her. I’ll do it by reading this poem. It came to my attention just recently. I understand that it’s a particular favorite of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Mary Ellen would certainly say this to you, or something very similar, as we remember her today.

The poem is called Epitaph. It’s by Merrit Malloy.

When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

 

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

 

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

 

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

 

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.

 

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

 

Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

10 Responses to “Eulogy for My Wife”

  1. Charlie Blank Says:

    The wordsmith from BC outdid yourself. Mary Ellen left you a gift in your ability to teach others as she did for many years. My condolences to you and your family.

  2. Mary Ann Iannelli Says:

    So beautiful Tom! Brings yet another tear and a smile. So sorry that I was unable to attend Mary Ellen’s Services and hear this tribute directly from you! One word comes to mind “special”

  3. Patrick J. Daly Says:

    So touching, Tom. Your stories about meeting Mary Ellen and some of the early dates are so intrinsically personal and real. You touch all the right notes about a person so integral to your own being. Your eulogy was beautiful. I wish I could have been there in person to pay my respects.

  4. Karen Lowe Says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am deeply moved. You have been so blessed to be her partner. Karen Lowe

  5. Alex L. Moschella Says:

    Tom – your eulogy touched me greatly. I am pleased we were able to speak personally and thank you for sharing such a moving tribute to Mary Ellen. Alex Moschella

  6. Martha Sherman Says:

    What a tribute Tom! Perfect words to honor a beautiful woman! So appreciate your sharing your touching eulogy!

  7. Anne Says:

    Beautiful tribute! Thank you for sharing. I just recorded/posted this video in memory of our friend who passed away at Seasons Hospice in Milton. He left much music but no one yet as written an eulogy or obituary for him. https://youtu.be/wmXlPHy4Vag

  8. BLOGmaiden Says:

    Beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing. I posted this recording in memory of our friend who passed away last December at Season’s Hospice. No one wrote an eulogy or obituary. You’ve inspired to write. https://youtu.be/wmXlPHy4Vag

  9. Thomas Barrett Says:

    Norma Farber in her book YEAR OF REVERSIBLE LOSS writes, “Sign your name on the wind. Then I’ll know which way to follow you.”

    Our losses give us a direction in life. You comforted me when we lost ” Queen Bee.” I hope this thought gives you comfort.

  10. Jill Anne Sylvester Says:

    Loved reading this Tom.
    Smiling in my heart as I think of Mary Ellen and what she meant to me. ..

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