Orphan to Caregiver to Widow – A Woman’s Story of Love, Grief and Legacy

She was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 29, 1916, Leap Day. Her parents were Herbert and Mary. Not much is known about her parents except that they had four children – three girls and a boy. She was the oldest. When she was about eight years old, something happened. We really don’t know the circumstances but suddenly she and her brother and sisters were orphans.

The youngest, her sister, was just a small baby when it happened. She remembered riding in the back seat of a car with some “official” women who spoke of her baby sister, spelling out “a-d-o-p-t-e-d”. She repeated those letters over and over in her head until she could find out what that word was and what it meant. She wanted to know what happened to her baby sister.

The three older children were taken to Michigan by Catholic Social Services and fostered to three different families. She went to a pharmacist and his wife in Owosso, a small town. She would eventually have three foster sisters and attended the Catholic school right across the street from the family home. In fact, the pastor of the church was her foster mother’s brother. Owosso was your normal small town where everyone knew everyone else. She had many stories to tell of growing up in Owosso with her new family. She called them Mom and Dad, although she was never officially adopted — it still felt like she was their own daughter.

Growing up, she had many friends and enjoyed life and going to school. She loved her foster sisters dearly and helped her Mom with them all the time. But she never forgot her true brother and sisters, hoping one day she would find them again.

She graduated from high school in 1935 and had one dream — to be a nurse. It was her dream. So she packed up and moved to the city — Detroit — to attend St. Joseph Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in the heart of the city on East Grand Boulevard. The student nurses lived in a residence hall across the boulevard from the hospital — and each day and evening they would leave their warm beds to attend classes. But they didn’t have to worry about the weather, even in the heart of winter. There was a tunnel under East Grand Boulevard connecting the residence to the hospital and the young students traveled back and forth in comfort.

Nursing school classes kept her very busy — she didn’t have a whole lot of free time to socialize and just “be young”. But she always had stories of adventures with her nursing school friends, stories of days enjoying nature on Belle Isle in the Detroit River, going shopping in downtown Detroit or perhaps seeing a play or a film.

There was a young man working part-time at the hospital while he attended college. He lived with his family just a few short blocks away on Finlay Street. Over time, they became friends and eventually began dating. She met his family – he had many brothers and sisters in a big Irish family. When she graduated from nursing school, he was her date at the banquet held at the Book Cadillac Hotel — it was very grand. Her foster parents came down from Owosso to join them in the festivities. And now she had her crisp white nurse’s cap with the blue strip and her blue cape — she was really a Registered Nurse!

She was now officially engaged to be married to the young Irishman and since they planned to stay in Detroit and start a family, she began her nursing career working at the place where she learned her craft – St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. They were married in February of 1939 at the chapel of Michigan State University in East Lansing. She wanted to be married by her foster uncle from Owosso, and he was at MSU at the time. It was also not a time to spend a lot of money, with the world on the brink of World War II. Her foster sister came with them to be her Maid of Honor.

The young couple moved into a flat on Detroit’s East Side on a shady street in St. John Berchman parish. By November of 1939, they welcomed their first child, a boy, and in April of 1941, another baby boy. The war in Europe continued, and she suffered the lost of a few good young friends from her high school days. Her husband’s brothers went off to war as well. By the time the war ended, they had three young boys — the third was born in October of 1944.

That small flat was getting smaller and smaller. Her young husband worked very hard and soon they decided to look for their very own home. They soon found a two-story brick bungalow on Detroit’s East Side in a neighborhood known as LaSalle College Park, very close to Detroit City Airport. It was a beautiful house — in a new neighborhood — practically brand new! There was a nice basement, a big kitchen with bright windows, a fireplace and a beautiful backyard with apple and pear trees. It even had a two-car garage — that was not a common sight then. It sat on a corner and was within walking distance of a children’s playgound, grocery and drug stores, and even more important to this growing family — a Catholic church and school — Our Lady of Good Counsel. At the time, church services and classes were held in the same place — but plans were in place to build a beautiful new church in a few years. It seemed the perfect place to raise their family.

And it was a good move because in 1947 they welcomed their fourth child – their first little girl. They build up a wonderful network of friends in the neighborhood. It was a very close neighborhood where everyone took care of each other. Her husband was active with the church and also building his own business. Things were going so wonderful. They saw his family all the time. But by now, her foster parents had moved away — they went to California for health reasons and opened a small pharmacy/food store. Of course, her foster sisters went as well. She missed them dearly but they did make a few trips to visit them — taking the train — and once time even driving across the country.

They had another surprise in 1955 — a new baby daughter. Even this wonderful house was starting to seem small to them! They talked about looking for a larger home — they even looked at one in Royal Oak. She missed her foster family so very much that at one point they even considered moving west to California with their young family.

By Christmas of 1956, there were many possibilities — he had his own busines, she helped out at times. Their oldest son was now 17 and close to graduating from high school, with the other two boys close behind at 15 and 12. The baby was just 19 months old, her sister 8 years old. The older children were happy and attending Catholic schools and had tons of friends. And best of all? She had finally reconnected with her biological family! Her brother was fairly close by with his wife and daughters in Mt. Clemens. Her sister lived in East Detroit with her family. And that baby who was a-d-o-p-t-e-d? She grew up in Florida and was married and had babies of her own! Life was being very generous.

And then everything changed.

On Christmas 1956, her husband and their 12-year-old son walked over to the church for Midnight Mass. After the service, they were walking home when her beloved husband saw a truck heading straight toward them on 6 Mile Road, just two blocks from home. He pushed his young son out of the way, but was not able to save himself. He never made it home that Christmas morning. He was 42 years old. Drinking and driving is not something that just started happening recently. It happened back then too.

After dealing with grief and loneliness, she eventually went back to work as an emergency room nurse on the midnight shift at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. She finished raising their five children in that same brick bungalow, watching three of them get married and meeting her seven grandchildren – two boys and five girls. She babysat all of them at one time or another. She never remarried, she was a Catholic woman, and would see her husband again in Heaven.

She retired in the late 1970s from the hospital and job she loved so much — with many stories to tell of those years — working through the 1967 Detroit riots — meeting visiting doctors from the world over — driving to California on vacations — weddings — funerals. But she was also sick and it did take its toll.

On October 12, 1980, with her middle son at home, she passed away in her sleep on the couch in that brick bungalow that she loved so very much. She left a legacy of love and learning and joy for her children and grandchildren. There are now great-grandchildren and a son-in-law she never got to meet, but would have enjoyed very much.

The woman was Geraldine McCarthy.

The woman was my mother.

Today is her birthday and I miss her immensely.


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