A Tiny Tempest: My Aunt Maggie
Maggie was my great aunt and Margaret, I’m proud to say, is my middle name. She took me under her wing in my high school years and was never shy about voicing her opinion to me, or to anybody else, for that matter. Maggie taught me double-entry bookkeeping, and so much more.
Born to Katherine and Michael O’Boyle, the youngest of six children (brothers Mike, George, Jim and Ed, and older sister -- and my grandmother -- Mae) her father was in his sixties when she was born in 1902! Maggie was raised a strict Irish Catholic, yet she became a career girl, moving from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Detroit to work as a legal secretary. She didn’t marry until she was in her mid-thirties and she and Uncle Obrien (or Uncle Obie as we all called him) never had children. I could talk to my Aunt Maggie about anything. From sex and birth control to drug and alcohol use, no subject was verboten. Anything I wanted to discuss was okay with Aunt Maggie. I once asked her why she didn’t have children. She replied, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. After all, we never tried not to.”
By the time we were having these conversations, Maggie was well into her seventies. She was a true anomaly for that place and time: the conservative, God-fearing Upper Peninsula in the Me Decade, the Seventies. Pictures taken of her as a young woman show her kissing boys and lighting cigarettes with bobbed hair and wearing a flapper skirt. Even when I was growing up almost 60 years later, the U.P. was a bastion of conservatism. Those pictures remind me of how brave she was in living her life unconventionally during the even more conservative teens and twenties.
I credit Aunt Maggie with my early recognition and treatment of my alcoholism. Uncle Obie had had an alcohol problem and had become a very early member of Alcoholics Anonymous , achieving and sustaining his sobriety from the 1940s until his death in 1970. When I was in high school, I began to party well beyond the pale, shall we say. I was underage and drinking a whole lot. Aunt Maggie and I both worked at Nebel Building & Supply Company – my Dad’s business. I started working in the summer of 1973, when I turned fourteen. Aunt Maggie taught me how to do the books and came in for a few hours each day so I could take lunch and work on other projects. In my junior year of high school, I was often coming in to work hung-over and stinking of Mad Dog 20/20, my cheap and effective drink of choice. Aunt Maggie asked me one time, “Did you take a bite of the dog that bit you?” Of course, I had to ask her to explain what that meant. “Did you take a drink this morning for your hangover?” Stifling an urge to vomit at the mere thought of drinking anything in my condition, I gagged out a, “No!”
“Good,” she replied impassively. “I’m worried about your drinking. When you have to start your day with a nip of the dog that bit you, you’ve got yourself a drinking problem.”
I never forgot that. Eventually, I would start drinking in the mornings, and every time I did, years after Aunt Maggie had taken leave of this Earth, I still heard her voice tell me, “When you take a nip of the dog that bit you, you’ve got yourself a drinking problem.” Well, with that voice of reason echoing in my head, there wasn’t much room for denial. I got treatment and nipped my alcoholism in the bud at the age of 28 and have been sober for over twenty years. (Thank you, Aunt Maggie!)
On rainy days at Nebel Building & Supply Company when the books were up-to-date and business was slow, I would ask her what it was like growing up all those years ago. She’d tell me how the Comstock Act forced prohibition on America just as she was about to come of age. However, with Yankee Know-How, she and her friends eventually learned how to make bathtub gin. She considered herself lucky to have little tolerance for alcohol. If she had more than one drink, she became deathly ill and threw up, and so she became the Prohibition Era’s equivalent of the designated driver. Maggie was the one who made sure everyone got home in one piece, and she usually got lectured for their bad behavior at every stop.
When she became an adult she decided she wanted a career and headed to the big city of Detroit which was a rough and tumble town during the “Roaring Twenties.” She got employment working for an attorney, and somehow became a suspect in the murder of the attorney’s wife. Maggie was the last person to see her alive before she succumbed to what turned out to be slow doses of arsenic poisoning. I’m not sure I would enjoy the status of being a murder suspect, but Maggie seemed to. The police assigned undercover officers and put her under 24-hour surveillance for a couple weeks. She quickly realized that two male faces were turning up everywhere she went. One night when she was out in a nightclub with a group of friends, she walked over to one of the ubiquitous officers and asked him to dance! Eventually, Maggie was cleared of any wrong-doing. (The murder itself went unsolved, though my money is on the hubby.)
Aunt Maggie relished controversy and she was not entirely popular for it, which she also relished. Consistently outspoken, she was not terribly sensitive to other’s feelings and never really explored her own. Maggie was just Maggie: a hard crusty exterior with a doughy center.
She affected a caustic manner when dealing with customers. Past seventy at the time we worked together, she ardently embraced her right to be a curmudgeon. I would wince at times when a personable contractor would come in and Maggie would refuse to rise from her chair until she was good and ready, and even then she barely spoke a word and never looked at him. (Soon my Dad had me doing the bulk of customer service, for which I had a natural aptitude. Perhaps that was Maggie’s plan all along!)
Maggie had been practicing for Curmudgeonry most of her life. She was a tiny lady, never growing taller than five feet, with flaming red hair and hazel eyes that could glare at you with accomplished ferocity. When she was a toddler, one of her brothers had accidentally dropped her on a jack, severing a tendon in her thigh. It healed badly, making her left leg shorter than her right by over an inch. She had an unavoidable limp for the rest of her life which gave her a rolling gait. She told me she was excrutiatingly self-conscious of this as a girl, and quite naturally felt like everyone was staring at her. When she walked down the street, and felt that a passerby was gawking, she would snarl at them, “Did you get a good look?”
She chuckled when she told me that story and by the time I was growing up, had taken to making fun of her limp before anyone else did. Still, I knew that her reaction would be anything but polite if anyone else did make fun of it. And my reaction would have been pretty ugly if anyone made fun of her limp in front of me as well.
But Maggie always appreciated a good fight. There were things that we could not agree on and we’d both dig our heels in, and neither would budge. I held strong political beliefs even in high school, and in my family I was something very rare indeed: A Democrat. Despite her progressive and unorthodox lifestyle, Maggie was politically conservative and a Republican. In the Vietnam Era we were oil and water or maybe more accurately, fire and brimstone, creating a hot cauldron of deeply-held but opposing convictions. We’d make our positions known to each other, but eventually had to accept that neither of us was going to give an inch in that department.
Secretly, Maggie appreciated anyone who didn’t cave under the weight of her personality. One contractor, fed up with her lack of social graces when he’d come into “the building” – as we all called my Dad’s business – took to calling her “The Old Bag” – to her face. She loved it. It completely broke the tension, and that contractor became her favorite customer and practically the only customer who ever rated a smile from the formidable Maggie O’Boyle Sheehy.
Maggie was a lifelong smoker. She told me she began smoking to keep a friend company whose doctor had recommended she take up smoking for her nerves. (Yes, doctors actually used to do that!) It was the one regret she ever expressed to me. Maggie was truly addicted to her cigarettes, smoking two or three packs a day for most of her adult life. I would see her driving up to the building in her little baby blue Hornet, squashing out a cigarette and lighting another one before she walked into the office. Quitting was not an option. She was the Charlton Heston of smoking. They would have to pry those “guns” from her cold dead hands. And that’s pretty much what happened.
I graduated from high school in 1977 and moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin to embark on adulthood. I worked for my Dad with Aunt Maggie during the summers through 1979, after which I decided to move to Oregon. I packed up my Plymouth Duster at the end of August and drove west. In the pre-email era, I wrote my Mom and Dad, friends and Aunt Maggie regular monthly letters as I settled into my new life. In the middle of October, Aunt Maggie sent me a note with a twenty-dollar bill in it. It was the last I ever heard from her.
Having never retired -- from work or smoking – Maggie complained of stomach pain one day at work and my Dad took her to see a doctor. The doctor admitted her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a stomach aneurysm. I bought my Aunt Maggie a get well card but didn’t even have time to mail it. On November 1, 1979 I got the phone call from my Mom that Aunt Maggie had died. She was 77 years old.
Aunt Maggie had introduced me to Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer , the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference . They are words that have seen me through my share of dark days and tough times. And when I read or think or hear those words, I immediately think of my Aunt Maggie.
My get well card had An Old Irish Blessing printed on the front cover. It’s still a fitting good-bye to my “ Tiny Tempest”:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Thanks again, Aunt Maggie . . .