In the first week of August, my sweet friend, Ruth Conlon McGarty, crossed the veil at age ninety. Her home was that in which my brother and I spent our early years, part of my own memories, as was the Conlon family. My mother re-introduced me to Ruth before her own death when Ruth had invited us to lunch during one of my visits home. Ruth became close to me after her husband Lenny’s death, increasingly so as she began to turn the corner toward her last chapter. Ruth enthusiastically embraced her Irish lineage and shared many stories with me as I researched my two books. She invited and expected me to stay with her on several research trips, and later simply to visit as often as possible. We shared many lovely times chatting, catching up with news, eating together, talking about her life and mine, our memories, the Irish of Waterbury, and she cheered my ongoing efforts. She contributed four of her historic photographs to my second book, later donating several photographs to the archive collection of the Mattatuck Museum. I was privileged to be asked to give the eulogy at her funeral, some of which I excerpt and recompose here.
Ruth Conlan McGarty was like a version of Mary Tyler Moore in my mind. She was good, wholesome, smart, strong, elegant, classy, gracious, funny, cheerful. She was a professional, the executive-secretary to the vice-president of Connecticut Light & Power for forty years. A “people-person” with a fully open heart and open mind, Ruth embodied a brightness that made her seem much younger than she was.
Her beloved Lenny devotedly cared for his mother, as did Ruth her own parents. After Mrs. McGarty’s passing, she and Lenny were free to marry, and Ruth explained that he made sure they could do so in the way they wished. Frustrated with the restrictions at her now local parish, they spoke with the pastor of the Immaculate Conception who openly listened to their plan to simply show up in the side chapel with a couple of friends when they could get away from work. Although he would have allowed this, he suggested they reconsider. Having waited so long to marry, with Ruth’s parents still alive, mightn’t Ray and Pauline appreciate the thrill of watching their daughter walk down the aisle? Agreeing to a version of that, Ruth and Lenny picked a convenient as-soon-as-possible date and invited friends to show up. Despite the relatively short notice the Immaculate was packed. Ruth explained that the party following at the Elks Club went on practically all night, though they slipped away, leaving their many friends who were thrilled to the core to continue celebrating Ruth and Lenny’s having finally tied the knot.
Ruth and Lenny were mad about each other and did everything together for thirty-five years, including taking many vacations, especially throughout Ireland. They were a solid team, always looking out for each other, happiest in each other’s company. Ruth recalled Lenny’s having set a habit in retirement that they would wake by seven o’clock every morning and be sure to do something out every day. They began the day by walking to Bunker Hill Pharmacy to buy the daily newspaper, then came home to read it and talk about whatever was going on over breakfast. Later they would engage with the outside world amid family or friends or in their favorite places. They loved to dine out, and fully enjoyed their well-earned quality time and experiences after less affluent years as children and young adults.
Having gone from a being a child in her parent’s home, to living with her parents in Bunker Hill, then becoming Lenny McGarty’s wife, Ruth had never experienced living alone until 2008. The loss of Lenny created an incredibly deep loneliness that accompanied her own declining health. She placed on the wall of her hallway the photograph I took of them not long before Lenny died and he remained in that way an image at the soul of their home. Thankfully, her wonderful neighbors, friends at church, and members of her extended family stepped in as Lenny would have hoped, each playing significant roles in their own ways. Ruth appreciated every inclusion, every invitation to a gathering, every meal, every performance at the Palace or Seven Angels Theatre and every attendance at a child’s event. She loved her nieces and nephews and spoke often about missing her two brothers and sister. She was devoted to her great grand-nephew whom she came to completely rely upon.
Reminiscent of like times with my own mother, visits to Ruth became part of any opportunity that led me to Connecticut. I, or my husband and I, would take her places she and Lenny used to go, or that I remembered and hadn’t seen in a while, or that none of us had ever visited before. We’d drive through Litchfield to enjoy the country roads and stop in at a potter’s studio, or watch the ducks near a restaurant we’d heard about, wander through peonies in bloom at a farm in Torrington, or walk throughout the downtown Green and Bunker Hill Park, both having been so much a part of my own young life. Ruth enjoyed re-visiting the church where she was married and finding the names of her and Lenny’s families inscribed on a plaque at the entrance. Sitting in her den at night in our respective two reclining chairs watching television with white wine and snacks before going to bed at ten or eleven, I would imagine her and Lenny having done this very thing, as the “two old crows” who lived there, like their lawn ornament proudly announced outside the front door.
I’ll never forget our watching various stages on cable of the lead-in to the 2016 presidential election and how refreshing it felt to me that we were politically aligned. When I would call she’d always ask how soon I could come back, and it saddened both of us that my living so far away (and my full time job) didn’t allow me to visit as often as either of us would have liked. I would make hopeful promises for several months ahead, when school was out or in-between semesters as possible.
Although I remain deeply connected to friends from elementary and high school, Ruth was the last familial-type of tie to my hometown. Her parents and my grandparents had been great friends, and my parents grew up and attended school near her and her siblings. My father was friends with her brothers. I recall the Conlons as part of my family’s sphere of connections and annual holiday visits when I was just a child, before my grandparents moved away. As her guest in my former home decades later I could be easily in the present with her. As I learned about her early life and common events through her perspective, she provided me the gift of being able to re-frame my own memories and release them. Through Ruth I was given an intimate insight into what it is like to grow old alone in a house after most everyone one loves has gone, along with one’s abilities and independence. With Ruth I could be a younger friend somewhat like a non-existent daughter for a period of time. As she began to decline her great grand-nephew and I got to know each other and his attention started to become ever more necessary.
I still like to think of Ruth rushing around, wanting to do or get something for me like a perfect hostess, and as one of her friends noted, with an ever-present bounce in her step. Ruth’s pure enjoyment of being with people is captured in my mind like a series of snapshots in which she is smiling, waving, laughing and quietly at peace in beautiful settings – all the many aspects of a person fully alive, fully herself. She made so many people happy through her presence that we who have loved her can now be happy for her. She is at rest, at peace, her spirit joined with that of her husband’s, her ancestors’ and everyone whose life she has touched.
It is fitting that the enormous number of people who came to the funeral home, representatives of organizations to which she belonged, friends of a lifetime, family from far and near, and those who drove to the church and the cemetery seemed more akin to what might be expected in honor of a much younger person or a local celebrity. That so many individuals showed up made me happy for her amid my sorrow imagining her last months. I thought of her smiling over every aspect of the day in which the fullness of her life was revealed.
Ruth remains within all who continue to remember her and hold her in our hearts along with all others who have come into ourselves. May we feel Ruth’s energy guiding and helping us spiritually as we continue to move forward in our own journeys, and may we face our own deaths as gracefully and nobly as she did.
©2019 Janet Maher / Sinéad Ni Mheachair