B and I recently attended a play with two friends from out of town. The play, Mr. and Mrs. Pennysworth, was put on by the iconic Looking Glass Theater here in Chicago. We didn’t quite know what to expect, but Holly and John David are more well-versed in the theater world, so we trusted them with our experience. And I’m glad we did.
Without giving too much away, I interpreted the overarching theme of the play as an importance to story. Be it Little Red Riding Hood or yours or my life story, what is told after we are long gone is what remains of us. The Three Little Pigs lives on because it is repeated over nightly bedtime routines and readily, almost organically, embraced throughout history, you see?
We resurrect characters and others in the act of sharing their legacies.
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to fly out with B and my in-laws to New Jersey. We were there to visit B’s grandparents, each respectively 94-years and 89-years in age. As we gathered in their little living room, we each took a seat across from where they sat, which kind of gave them a likeness to being on a stage for us. Even at their age, both were so endearing in their presence and witty as ever. From what I gather now, this is a very Irish trait. The Sweeney quick wit, as I like to think of it.
B’s grandmother Marion, sadly, has the onset of Alzheimer’s, so his grandfather John took the stage in guiding us through their life and all of his travels. We started with flipping through albums full of photos throughout their years together. For their 50th wedding anniversary, Grandpa Sweeney took the liberty of writing letters to all different actors and musicians requesting well wishes for them. Page after page, we were repeatedly surprised and excited to see so many faces. From Betty White to Tom Selleck, we could let alone believe the level of response, but how precious the commitment was to send all these letters for this surprise was so real.
As of today, they have spent 67 years of their life married. I wish I could explain what it was like to watch them interact with one another; whether it was a playful moment or a gentle reminder for Grandma Sweeney, their marriage is a testament to the vows we exchange in marriage — for better or worse; in sickness and in health. How much more important is it now to tell these stories of their lives?
Hearing about, not only her beauty, but strength and persistence as a woman in a male dominated world, Grandma Sweeney inspired me. Having grown up as the daughter of an assistant to the President of Ireland, she was inevitably bound to some form of justice-minded belief. She saved every response from the White House, Governor, Senator, Red Cross, or charity in these photo albums. (One letter from a Senator read: “P.S. Yes, I remember our talk. No, I don’t remember being late to coffee.”) These are no doubt a testament to her belief in justice, truth and accountability. I was floored seeing her being appointed to the Board of the Red Cross in one newspaper clipping. As a fun bonus in life, she also saved her clippings when she was featured in advertisements as a model.
I was told stories about how she just didn’t, well, take shit from anyone. Her opinions were fierce and she held to them. Grandpa Sweeney mentioned her protesting presence during college. B, my sweet husband, just looked over at me with a knowing face that said, “You must love her, huh?” My mother-in-law said so matter-of-factly that, if she could, Grandma Marion would have been right next to me during the Women’s March. I did love her. Terribly.
But I’m glad — we’re glad — we will forever have her stories.
At one point during our stay, Grandpa Sweeney pulled out a sheet of paper. He told us that, before we arrived, he wanted to reflect on all the places he had traveled. His dad had immigrated here from Ireland, and he was born and raised in New York. From there, he would meet his wife. In their day, it was so common for the husband to work and travel in order to provide. And travel, he did. From Japan to Barbados to Canada — really, if you name it he has been there once, twice or thrice. His stories were hilarious and hard-to-believe true. They even made me ask myself, “Dang. How much have I not lived?!”
Grandma and Grandpa Sweeney’s stories are beautiful. They are rich and vibrant, like a Hemingway novel (complete with a bullfighting story in Spain). I could have listened to Grandpa Sweeney’s stories for more hours than we did. The feeling of wanting to live and swim in them was an ache; a longing to know more and go deeper. The albums we flipped through held more than just pieces of paper recognizing their work and lives — they held the very tale we get to pass on.
At the end of Mr. and Mrs. Pennysworth, we are met with what happens at the close of someone’s story. Sometimes, it’s the unexpected. Other times, it’s the natural order of things, but finality beckons all of us in one way or another. After this weekend, I’m asking myself who will tell my story? Brendan’s story? Who will sit with us around our living room to hear how our lives took shape together?
No matter who you are, there is a legacy left behind. Your story is powerful and it is real. For me, I can only hope to leave this world with a collection hard-to-believe truths.
But first, I need to start on our photo albums.