Eulogy for Maureen Sullivan
Delivered by Dan Mattingly
February 18, 2023
St. Matthew Catholic Church
In the tradition of my Dad’s aunt Clara’s funeral, I would like to start by saying it was good of mom to bring us all home today……because after all, that was her gift, particularly around the holidays.
And when we got back home, for the holidays or any other occasion, her red oak dining table was often where we landed. It was sacred ground, as formative a platform as any in the life of our family.
It’s where we celebrated big wins, good grades, engagements, pregnancy announcements and even Pete’s first cell phone hidden in a vat of mashed potatoes. It’s where she instilled many of her most important lessons.
Alzheimer’s is tough, even tougher still when it’s on top of a cancer, and we all in our own way will have to intentionally block some of the more painful memories of these last few years, so that they don’t cut a hole too deeply into the corner of our hearts reserved for Mom.
So to help with that process, on a sadder day like today, I will try to think back to that dining table, and imagine what mom would have said. If the conversation topic was getting through her funeral with the utmost grace, I’m not 100% sure what the syllabus would’ve looked like, but I can promise you it would have been thoughtful …and passionate. She would’ve nailed it, because our mom was a force of nature, and we should all be grateful for the lessons she instilled.
Here are just a few that our family would like to share:
She taught us about civic duty, when she celebrated the morning of my first vote in a general election with the gift of a handwritten note, accompanying a Joni Mitchell cd, that included the track “the circle game”. I wound up taking more to “cactus tree”, but the lesson still landed about the importance of flexing our voice in a democracy, and also about taking time to make sure your kids don’t grow up too fast.
She reminded us to leave the planet better than we found it, when on a middle class budget she paid for recycling and a cloth diaper delivery service in rural Boone County, over 30 years ago. She composted before it was cool, minded “no zone” days and even gifted us boys with a rotary mower to help manage a three and a half acre lot.
She nudged each of us to reach down and extend a hand to those in need, when she included Billy and I in the Hands Across America demonstration at the ages of 3 and 5.
At the table, she instilled that the words of our leaders really do matter, if you kept count of how many times she recited, or boldly exemplified, the idea that it “takes a village to raise a child”…….Boy that one had some discomforting applications when Mom thought your friends were out of line.
Mom worked hard constantly… like when she had a job within two days of landing in New York City for their relocation / honeymoon. She never stopped leading by example on this front, and thus her lessons constantly brushed up against the topic of our work ethic. She framed our every weekend morning, and every summertime day, with a list of chores that needed to be accomplished before we could relax, or watch TV. My brothers and I in recent years, have taken hard to the song “Hey Mama”, and I feel like somehow subconsciously Nathaniel Rateliff stole the line “Boy better start actin’ like this here is a race” from Maureen Sullivan.
Mom engrained high standards, very often from the dining table. When my brothers and I would come home with the report card, if in a good term it were all A’s and one B she would look at you with a straight face that I promise never felt indignant, and would ask if you needed a tutor for the one subject that you didn’t ace.
Mom didn’t care who was watching when she was administering lessons or supporting her family.….or when she was personally bouncing up and down to stress test furniture before it was purchased. Just ask Jill. I’m confident she will instruct our daughters to leave their mother in laws out of their newlywed mattress shopping. Seriously though, mom had a razor sharp focus towards the ones she loved, with an intensity that morphed everything else into a meaningless backdrop if she thought it was an important moment.
Mom advised us to be faithful. She attended mass like clockwork each Sunday when we were growing up, and then often daily during her years working at Cathedral. Her first job when she went back to work full time was in the parish office. She was a communion minister, a lector and to our teenage dismay even sang during mass at St. Als…..and I mean loudly, whether she was on the altar or not.
There were places in mom’s lessons where her ideals conflicted with the more conservative ends of doctrine that formed her faith, but I think her age group found her plenty reverent, having blessed her with six godchildren. Beyond even sacramental opportunities to lead, she was simply a role model to other parents — my aunt Mary, another icon of our childhood, said when mom first got sick that she wept, because after all it was “mom, who taught Aunt Mary how to be a mom”
When she would get particularly frustrated, even in a room crowded by the sources of her frustrations, she would grab the table with white knuckles and recite often very audibly, no doubt intentionally, “help me Jesus”. It took a while, but I have come to think in those moments that she was teaching us to have patience, and that no matter where we land in our faith journeys, we never walk alone.
Mom exemplified that we need to be pliable for our kids. She was an actress, a liberal arts major and the oldest of six girls and one boy. As a kicker she was even born in New York City, and yet somehow wound up raising four rambunctious boys on 22 acres of farm ground. She transitioned effortlessly to her new life though, both the country elements and her brood of meatheads. I have early memories of Mom keeping her lefthanded baseball glove and Tigers hat always at the ready, for whenever we wanted to play catch in the yard.
Mom encouraged us to be expressive, making us feel like our thoughts when constructively and respectfully formed, always belonged in the room. And she was so articulate. A dear friend of hers and dads brought to light recently that Mom had participated in her daughter’s doctoral study surrounding a portrait of womanhood. Mom wrote in her contribution which accompanied an incredible photo of her in our kitchen “I am happy with the body that has carried me to where I am. I am blessed with four sons that it has born for me. I like being athletic and strong. I like working hard during the day and sleeping well at night. I thank God to share this life with a person that completes me in every way. I want my mind to be always learning. My eyes are my soul’s window.”
Mom wasn’t perfect — her passion could tip into something resembling a hot Irish temper. Don’t you dare go sacrificing antique Sullivan furniture for the sake of a sick WWF style elbow drop, or a 100+ year old barn window in the name of a field goal contest. But even in those moments she was teaching. We learned to value what we have already, not our perception of what we are owed, a lesson I know my brothers and I sometimes worry if I we are doing a good enough job of with our own children.
Mom’s most important lessons, like I’m sure most of the parents in this room, centered around matters of the heart. Our house growing up was a fortress of love, and if marriage is the highest expression of love, then it’s no surprise my mom had a lot to say on the topic of what it means to be a good spouse. And it’s a good thing too, because to little surprise after growing up in her shadow, my brothers and I have all somehow managed to marry up.
Mom spoke about love literally, like when she chided me intensely for repeating out loud that a good friend felt her one parent should divorce the other. She made it clear in no uncertain terms that I should keep their marriage out of my mouth, as I didn’t know even a little bit about the topic until I had a successful one of my own.
She also directed on this subject figuratively, by loving our dad very obviously and with all her available ferocity, for her entire adult life. Dad recently found a journal that Mom had kept for a while when we were kids, where she took time daily to remind herself of all that she had to be grateful for – the list ran a broad spectrum, from emblematic to literal, spiritual to material, big and small. I think she was in a bit of a rut during that period, and trying to work herself out…point being the journal didn’t last for long. In 78 entries though, the shining star of her grateful universe was easily apparent. And that was Dad, who was mentioned nearly constantly.
I think if mom was here today she would be touched by the attendance, and the emotion. She would want us to say “thank you”, for for you to know, that we know, that we are blessed; but in classic mom fashion she would also worry. Mind you she wouldn’t overly fret, or sleep with one foot on the floor up in heaven. There was always a quiet confidence about mom. But she’d lovingly stew, because she hated when we were sad…..and if life is effectively one really long exam, I bet she would worry a bit about whether or not she helped us study hard enough.
Confident in her lesson plan execution or not, I know she’ll remain vigilant as her grandkids grow up and take these lessons forward into the world….for that is now and always will be their greatest inheritance.
I would like to think that she is listening today. And assuming so, she should know that we will miss her, that we loved her fiercely to the moon and back, and that we were always listening at the table. God bless our mom and may she rest in peace.
Maureen’s obituary can be found at the following link: