Monday, March 31, 2008

Tamar Hennessy Dies at 82--Eternal Rest Grant Unto Her, O Lord+++

Tamar Teresa Batterham Hennessy, the only child of Catholic Worker co-foundress Dorothy Day, died subsequent to a stroke on Tuesday, 25 March 2008, in Lebanon, Hew Hampshire at the age of 82.

Born in Mahattan in 1926, she was baptized at Our Lady Help of Christians Roman Catholic Church in Tottenville later that same year. Tamar was witness to the inception of the Catholic Worker when she was eight years old and later conceded that this life can be difficult for any child"

"She [Dorothy Day] was traveling alot , and I was left to be taken care of by various people, and I got very ill. It was hard for both of us. She had her work, and yet at the same time she had me. She was very devoted. She was very torn," Hennessy told a reporter in 2003.

Still in the same interview, Ms. Hennessy expressed no regrets, "I loved the Catholic Worker. It was so exciting. I wouldn't have missed a moment of it," and her admiration for her mother was unwavering, "She loved her family so much, and in so many, many ways she kept me going. She missed understanding the material side of it. She expected alot of going without. At the same time she supported me alot, and I can't say enough good about that."

Ms. Hennessy graduated from the Acadamy of St. Dorothy in Grasmere, and studied at the Farmingdale Agricultural School on Long Island, as well as the workshop of artist Ade Bethune in Newport, Rhode Island. She married William David Hennessy, a farmer and bookseller, in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1944. The couple settled in West Virginia, but eventually returned to Staten Island, where they lived near the Catholic Worker Farm on Bloomingdale Road in Rossville.

Ms. Hennessy's great delights were her children and grandchildren, welcoming visitors, caring for animals, discussing politics and listening to jazz and classical music.

Her husband, W. David Hennessy, died in 2005.

Surviving are her two sons, David and Hilaire Hennessy; her five daughters, Rebecca Houghton, and Mary, Margaret, Martha and Catherine Hennessy; eighteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren.

Ms. Hennessy's daughter, Susanna McMurry, died in 1986, and her son, Nicholas Hennessy, died in 1987. Grandson Justin Houghton died in 1979, and grandson Joshua Hennessy died in 2004.

Tamar Hennessy's funeral Mass was celebrated at 11 a.m. Saturday, 29 March 2008 at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Springfield, Vermont followed by a private burial. Her daughter Kate remembered her at that Mass as follows:

Remembering Tamar Hennessy: "how to see and delight in beauty"
by Kate Hennessy

Much of my mother's life has been written about by her mother, Dorothy Day. Many stories have come down through Catholic Worker history, beginning with the story of Tamar's birth, a birth that led Dorothy to convert to Catholicism, which then led to the founding of the Catholic Worker movement. And throughout the following years, my grandmother continued to write about my mother--her childhood, her marriage, the birth of her children, her farm in Vermont. My mother was intensely uncomfortable with all of this. She was a private person, a shy person; she didn't like to be written about, and knowing this, I am not entirely comfortable with speaking about her here and now. I can only hope she will forgive me, but I feel I must do this, not only to help myself and my family, if I can, come to terms with this huge loss, but also because I believe her story needs to continue to be told. I'm sure my mother is wondering what she did to deserve this-to be written about not only by her mother but by her daughter too-but she will have to continue to put up with it. (...)

The basic details of my mother's life are known to many-married young, had nine children, and after a failed marriage led a difficult life as a single mother. These facts don't reveal what to me is the kernel of her story-her dreams, her desires, her motivations, and ultimately what her gifts have been not only to us, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, but to the greater community, for I know there are many people who came to know and to love my mother. Every day we hear from people who say to us, "Your mother saved my life." "Tamar took me in when I had no place to go." "She listened to me when I had no one else to talk to." She often just quietly, without fuss, showed up -- for graduations, for marriages, for hospital visits, for court appearances.

Her generosity and hospitality had no limits. For someone who possessed little -- she never seemed to have had an attachment to material things -- she always had something to give. Even with a house filled with kids, there was always room for one more-one more stray teenager or one more stray dog. I think she had a special affinity with teenagers. She seemed to understand the troubles they were in and knew enough to simply open the door for them and give shelter without comment.

She accepted everyone for exactly who they were. This ability of hers to love unconditionally and to accept unconditionally lies at the heart of her lessons to me. We often speak of "tolerance" and a "willingness" to accept others when we are trying to be good. Tamar didn't need tolerance or willingness. She didn't need to decide to be kind; she was innately so. Her favorite phrase was "loving kindness." "All we need is loving kindness," she'd often say. "Sure, Mom," I'd say, not really having a clue of what she meant. I have a clue now, and all I can do is pray I can achieve a fraction of what she did -- no, not of what she did, but of what she was.

She was a person of gentle humor and loved to laugh. She had an abiding curiosity and thirst to learn; there was always something new to explore, to discuss, to research, even in the face of constant physical pain. She had an eye and a love for the details of life. As her children, we learned to spin and weave, to plant and harvest, to observe and love the natural world around us.

These are simple things -- gardener, spinner and weaver. But they are hugely symbolic. They are the stuff of mythologies, of a world and spiritual view that helps us to take everyday life and place it in a larger spiritual context, or maybe it is the other way around. I think that we often have difficulty in seeing a faith lived out that is not part of a larger tradition, and we may not even recognize our own faith when it seems to lie outside these norms. Tamar often spoke of having had a crisis of faith, but I don't believe it. I believe that her faith, that is, the foundation of who she was as a spiritual being, was solid and true, and that it was a living faith, an innate faith that manifested in the love she gave. She didn't see this, of course. She often saw only her failures; she felt sorrow and regret for those she wasn't able to help, whether within her own family or without.

Her mother, Dorothy, was the one who chose to go out into the world to make change. She was the speaker, the writer, the doer. My mother was in so many ways the exact opposite -- quiet, shy, loved to stay at home and refused to write anything. There are few people who are called to meet the challenge that Dorothy presented. The truth is we all cannot follow in her footsteps, which is what my mother was often asked in her youth. Instead, my mother carved out a life of her own-a life of family and of the land and of home.

It would be easy to say that yes, Tamar was a good woman, a good daughter, a good mother and leave it at that. This implies that her world was small, her influence narrow in scope, but I believe the lessons she has for us have no such boundaries. I say that if we, as a family, as a local community, as a culture and as part of the larger world, ignore what she teaches us, it is at our peril. Tamar's way is the quiet way, but it is a way that each of us can learn from and follow-no matter who we are or who we aren't, what we have or what we don't have, what we feel or what we don't feel. That whatever bit of earth we live on, we must and can care for it, encourage it and share it with those creatures and plants who also belong here. And in this moment, where we are now, with whomever walks through our front door whether adult or child, daughter or stranger, human or creature, that this is the divine moment, the moment in which we are given the opportunity to give, to help, to love and to create.

Spring is almost here. I think of spring as my mother's season. Last week she had already begun planting in the small way she could while being confined to her wheelchair. Soon her front garden will be blooming -- first the snowdrops and crocuses followed by the magnolia trees. And then the wisteria, violets and forget-me-nots will blanket the lawn in shades of blues and purples, and people will slow down as they drive by on Valley Street to gaze at this unexpected patch of beauty. Tamar knew how to do this -- how to invite beauty, how to see beauty, how to delight in beauty. What a gift.

Thank you, thank you so much.


DJ said...

Thank you for sharing your story about your mother. I just finished watching the video "Entertaining Angels" and I wanted to research more about your Grandmother, but also to see where your Mother’s journey continued. I agree with you when you wrote, some people live their lives doing charity in different ways, and I believe your mother continued her work as well, in a more passive way. Your Mother will alwasy be with you in spirit. God Bless!!

Jennie said...

Your mother's influence was anything but small, even if she had been simply a mother and grandmother. For I too - just last night - watched "Entertaining Angels" and wanted to know more about your mother and her life. And reading the beautiful words you shared about her has moved me very deeply - and inspired me in my own walk with God on earth. Thank you so very much. Jennie in Minnesota

Jennie said...

Your mother's influence was anything but small, even if she had been simply a mother and grandmother. For I too - just last night - watched "Entertaining Angels" and wanted to know more about her life. The words you shared about her moved me very deeply, and have inspired me in my walk with God on earth. Thank you so very much. Jennie

Anonymous said...

I have been researching my family history & am pleasantly surprised to realise that I am related to your family via the Batterham line. I am a descendant of Forster & therefore Tamar. Tamar sounds like a wonderful lady & I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet her.
Godbless her & you her family
Regards & best wishes
Helen Clarke,
Sheffield, England.

Joy said...

Helen Clarke isn't it strange to see how things go in life? Forster gave up on Dorothy Day and missed out on a beautiful woman Tamara became. In our aging years the substance of life is being loyal and true to others and that is both Dorothy and Tamaras essence of their life's story.