Tuesday, June 28, 2011


JEANNETTE BRENNAN; June 28, 1902 to November 27, 1992

On the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the corner of my office at Cooley Law School in Lansing, there are five big volumes of speeches I have given, going all the way back to 1945.

But I’ve never given a eulogy before. So I really don’t know how to do this. I really don’t know what I am supposed to say.

Certainly, I want to say ‘Thank you’.

For myself, for Sally and Ray and Mary, and on behalf of mother, too, I want all of you who are with us here this morning to know how much we appreciate, and how much she appreciates, your thoughtfulness in coming here to help celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass and to help celebrate a lifetime of sacrifice and devotion to Church and family.

You honor us by your presence. You comfort us by your prayers and your concern.

Thumbing through a file of mother’s letters last night, I found one dated in 1977, shortly after Terry’s death.

It was one of those explanatory epistles I have received from my mother. The kind she used to write after we had had a good old fashioned nose to nose confrontational dialogue.

The gist of her complaint on that occasion was that I didn’t think of her as a person. I thought of her only as my mother.

Well, I got to thinking that maybe this morning I wouldn’t talk about my mother. I’d just talk to you about a person named Jeannette.

She was born in 1902.

Detroit, Michigan was then about the size of Lansing today. There was no television. No radio. No automobiles. Telephones were rare. Electricity was a novelty. Think of a kitchen without electricity. No microwave. No toaster. No refrigerator.

Her father, John Emmett Sullivan, was a lawyer. He was a good man. Loved his family. But he was not particularly successful. He moved his office a number of times, and seemed always to be waiting for that one big case or client that would enable him to do all the things he wanted to do for his family.

They lived in a rented house in Rosary Parish, in what is now known as the Cass Corridor.

Once, when she was nine years old, the gas was cut off because her father couldn’t pay the bill. There was no heat. There was no light. Sitting on the cold, dark stairway --- she remembered --- eavesdropping on her parents. And she never forgot the sense of shame and embarrassment she felt. And her determination never to suffer that kind of humiliation again. She would work. She would fight. She would never give up.

But she would never again sit in a cold, dark house.

Jeanette was a pretty girl. A good student. She had a flair for drama. And writing. In our time, she would certainly have gone to college. In 1918, she couldn’t even finish high school.

Her father died when she was still in grammar school. Her mother took in boarders to make ends meet.

At 16, she enrolled in a secretarial course at T.B. I., The Business Institute. She did well. Finished the course in record time, and was promptly hired by the school.

Before long, she found a job at Ford Motor Company, and when her older sister, Adele, was married, Jeannette became the principal breadwinner in the household, supporting her mother, her sister Gertrude, and her younger brother, Emmett.

The early 1020’s were good years for Jeannette. She progressed at Ford; became personal secretary to Mr. Gregory, a top executive who handled all of Henry Ford’s real estate holdings.

She was popular. Dated college men. Attended dances at the University of Detroit. And football games. It was then that she met and was courted by Joe Brennan, a young car salesman from the east side.

They fell in love, and during an engagement that lasted nearly two years, they made careful plans to buy a home. She wanted the security of a home. Their own house.

Joe Brennan shared the dream, and in 1925 they bought a two bedroom bungalow on a muddy lane called Elmira Street way out on the west end of town.

And so, on a Wednesday morning, they were married. She wore a suit. It was a small, family affair. They went to Boston on their honeymoon. When they returned, Joe found out that he had lost his job at Studebaker Motor Care Company.

Hang on Jeannette. Dig in, Jeannette. Work hard. Say your prayers.

Soon enough, Joe had another job. It took nearly half of his salary at the Secretary of State’s office to make the monthly payment on the land contract. But they never missed.

In August of 1926, Terry was born. Thirty-three months after, I came along. In October of that year, the stock market crashed, and America began to decline into the deepest, most devastating economic depression in its history.

Now the cute, petite, wavy haired secretary became the total wife and mother.

Through trial and error and the inventions of necessity, she learned to cook, to sew and to launder. She had no washing machine, not even the old fashioned kind that slopped clothes back and forth. She had one of those bumpy scrub boards to rub the clothes on, and a hand operated wringer that attached to the side of the washtub.

There were no automatic hot water heaters; no thermostats. Once, when she left the tank on too long, steam spewed out of the hot water hose and scalded her arms and neck. There was no 911 emergency number to call. You just screamed and screamed until neighbors rushed over to help with fumbling hands and home remedies.

There was no Blue Cross in those days either. When scarlet fever caught a child in its grip, you were quarantined for weeks. Locked in the house alone with a sick little boy, waving at your husband on the sidewalk. Throwing kisses to the younger boy who didn’t understand why he couldn’t go inside and hug his mama.

Hold on, Jeannette. Keep fighting, Jeannette. Never give up, Jeannette.

In 1933, Sally was born. In 1934, they lost the house. They had never missed a payment on their land contract with the builder. Unfortunately, the builder wasn’t making his payments to the bank. One day, the bank hung a notice on the front door.

So much for the security of home ownership.

In 1935, they bought the house on Morley Avenue. Three bedrooms and one bathroom on a 35 foot lot. To Jeannette, it was a castle. In 1937, Raymond, like his sister, Sally, was delivered at home.

In those days a big evening’s entertainment consisted of renting a 500 piece picture puzzle from the drugstore for a nickel, and working late into the night to watch a mountain waterfall take shape on the dining room table.

By the end of the decade, things were beginning to look brighter. Joe got a new job at Chevrolet. They even gave him a car to drive. The other car was left at home, and now at last, Jeannette could learn how to drive.

Then suddenly, while the family rode down West Chicago Boulevard on a Sunday morning trip to visit Grandma Brennan, the words “Pearl Harbor” blared from the radio and once again life was reduced to a struggle for survival.

Chevrolet stopped making passenger cars. Joe was let go. He was 41 and eligible for the draft. Terry would soon be old enough to fight. Maybe even little Tommy.

Hold on, Jeannette. Keep working, Jeannette. Keep praying.

Her husband got a job at McCord’s where they stamped out helmets for the army. The din on the factory floor was incessant. Every night he came home with a headache. There was gas rationing. There was meat rationing. Shoes were rationed. Somehow, she made do. Patch up. Fix up. Clean up. Hand me down.

In 1943, she had another baby. Mary was no accident. She was an affirmation of life. Of love. Of hope in a future that couldn’t be seen. Of determination to fight on. And to win.

When Terry went in the navy, she began to write. She wrote letters. She wrote poems. She wrote about the news. She wrote about the family. She gave witness to her deep and abiding Catholic faith. She gave advice and encouragement. Her words were the glue that held the family together.

When the war ended, Jeannette’s life seemed finally to be fulfilled. Her husband embarked on a new and successful career in banking. Her children went to college. Got married. Had grandchildren.

She and Joe even realized that ultimate dream of building a cottage at Rondeau Park. Now the little brown eyed girl from Cass Avenue could breathe easy. Now there was security. Laughter. A time for resting. A time for enjoying.

And then in 1958, Joe Brennan died.

Once again, she was alone. Once more, she dug down and clutched to that tenacious self reliance, the unbending personal pride that wouldn’t admit to vulnerability. That would never be overcome by misfortune.

And so her 33 years of married life were followed by 34 years of widowhood.

Competing with people half her age, she learned to support herself. She managed the modest estate of her husband’s life insurance skillfully and prudently. She reared a teen aged daughter.

And she stood like a rock of support for her married children, guiding them through troubles and tears. She kept the family together with tough love.

She survived complicated surgery. A brain aneurism. The death of her oldest son. Not as a stoic victim, but as an undaunted, scrappy fighter. Always thankful for blessings received. Always hopeful for a better day.

Hold on, Jeanntte. Keep going, Jeanntte. Keep praying. Keep working. Keep fighting. Never give up.

In the end, she outlasted her beloved Ford Mustang and the neighborhood Red Lobster. She outlived all her friends; the Tenbushes, the Gumbletons, the Drolshagens and the Garveys. And she gave us all a new respect for cheese whiz and leftovers.

She was feisty and opinionated. Full of love and brimming with romance. A heart full of girlish imagination and beautiful, fanciful dreams was never completely overcome by a head full of numbers and practical rules for living.

She was the Scarlet O’Hara of the rust belt. The Katherine Hepburn of the Altar Sodality.

Jeannette Brennan was my mother. She was also my friend.

I knew her as a person. I knew her as an old lady who was still part young woman and part little girl.

And I knew her as a fellow Christian, for whom, today, the words of Saint Paul to Timothy seem most fitting:

“As for me, I am already poured out in sacrifice, and the time of my deliverance is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith. For the rest there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will give to me in that day. Yet not for me only, but also for those who love his coming.”

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