Monday, May 8, 2017

Dorothy Magdalaine (nee Boissy) Ryan

Some of my longtime followers may recall that I started this blog several years ago with the express intention that it would be especially for my grandchildren.  Then, as I merrily traipsed around North America in my RV posting almost daily about my adventures, I realized that those very same grandchildren really had no interest in my blog . . . or, so I thought.  Several months ago daughter Kari informed me that my only grandson, 17-year-old triplet Spencer, had read most of my posts, what a surprise that was!  Since then, I've been contemplating a return to posting, but hadn't actually done much about it - until now.  With several family events and memories currently and in the making, I'm going to start again.  Granddaughter Avery, another of the triplets, asked me a few weeks back why I wasn't posting on my blog, saying she'd read lots of my posts and would like to read more.  Wow!  I'm ecstatic to know that at least two of the kids I thought had no interest  have been reading - without my even knowing it.

Today's post is a tribute to my mother who would be 109-years-old on this lovely 8th day of May.  Interestingly, I remember that when she was 65 she applied for Social Security and found that the  documentation of her birth was May 19, 1908; the discrepancy was, I'm pretty sure that, although her home birth took place on the 8th, the official registration was made on the 19th.  She did, however, have to wait an extra 11 days before she was eligible for her first SSA monthly payment!

Dorothy Magdalaine Boissy was born, the youngest of four siblings, to Jean de Baptiste Boissy and his wife Laura (nee de Bouvier) Boissy, in Plattsburgh, New York.  My grandparents were a Québecois (French-Canadian) couple visiting New York from Québec, Canada, when Dorothy (pronounced DOR-O-TAY’) arrived on this Earth.  She joined older siblings, Renée, Berthe and Laurence.  Mom became known as Dot, Renée as Rena, Berthe as Bertha and Laurence as Lawrence.  My grandfather, Jean (John) was a architect and his wife Laura a homemaker.  Mom was a natural U.S. citizen and her family immigrated to Plattsburgh, where she was raised.  Plattsburgh, located so close to the Canadian border with Québec, was, and still is, an area very influenced by its French roots.  Dot's mother tongue was French; she didn't start learning English until she was in high school.  [There's an interesting story about how I learned to speak French, for the most part, after Mom passed away.  But, that's a subject for a future post!] 

Mom's childhood was not always a happy one.  Her father passed away when she was only 18-months-old; she really had no personal recollection of him.  He died of "lockjaw," which we now know as "tetanus," an infectious disease of the central nervous system caused by a bacteria Clostridium tetani  that initiates a pathological condition in which the mouth is held tightly shut by a sustained spasm of the massater (jaw) muscle.  Remember this was the first decade of the 20th century; although a passive immunology had been discovered as early as 1890, the first useable vaccine wasn't produced until 1924.  "Grandpere" probably starved to death, as there was no cure.  Sadly, "Grandmere," Mom's mom, followed her husband just a short time later, dying of "jaundice" when Mom was 4 ½-years-old.  Because records were scarce, most family histories were oral and Mom was so young at the time of my grandparents' demise, little is known about the particulars of their lives I'm sad to say.

Four children were orphaned at a time when there was no government aid available for parentless children.  Fortunately, the Boissy family had friends and relatives throughout the Plattsburgh area, one of whom was a spinster aunt who had recently married a widower with seven children.  As Mom described, this aunt had a "heart of gold" and notwithstanding her busy life as very recent wife and mother, Auntie and her family took in my mother and her three siblings, thus making Mom the youngest of 11!  As I recall Mom describing her formative years, I sense that she suffered from a distinct lack of motherly attention; I'm sure her aunt was simply overwhelmed by the enormity of her life and daily tasks.  Her inability to give needed emotional and educational nourishment to my mother is understandable, but had injurious influence on her upbringing and adulthood.  Although Mom and Dad essentially dedicated themselves completely to the rearing of my brother and me, to the exclusion of their own social and emotional well-being, I know Mom always felt she should be "doing more" - a kind of motherly work ethic shortfall that carried throughout her life.

After graduating from high school in Plattsburgh in 1926, Mom and a girlfriend set out for the big city, New York, a pretty gutsy thing for a young lady to do in those days.  They stayed and worked there at various sales- and office-girl jobs for a couple of years, then returned to Plattsburgh, where Mom worked in the Post Exchange at the oldest military post in United states history, called the Plattsburgh Barracks. The land there, twenty miles from the Canadian border, had been purchased by the Federal Government in 1814. Originally it was an Army base, but in the 1950s it became Plattsburgh Air Force Base, then was permanently closed in 1995.  It played a big role in Mom’s life . . .

[There are only a few photos of Dot before her marriage to my dad, and I'll have to dig through boxes of old photos when I get settled in a few months to share them.] 

So, as a beautiful young woman, she was working in the Post Exchange when a young Army officer, Leo Francis Ryan, received orders and was stationed at Plattsburgh Barracks where he met Dot when he became a customer in the Post Exchange.  I'm sure their courtship was exciting and fiery - she 100% French Canadian and he of Irish (father) and German (mother) heritage.  They were married in a Roman Catholic service on a very, very cold Saturday evening, February 3, 1934 in Plattsburgh.  When I say cold, I do mean cold - the wind-chill factor was 40-below-zero Fahrenheit! It was a very simple ceremony and reception given by my Aunts Rena and Bertha.  I don't know a lot about what it was like, except I do remember Mom telling me that, in a French-Canadian tradition, her sisters had made the wedding fruitcake weeks in advance, macerating with French brandy (and a little rum and bourbon, too) every other day or so until the wedding celebration.  That must have been one mind-altering wedding cake by the time they ate it!  As the weather was so inhospitable Dot and Leo spent their wedding night and short honeymoon in my aunt's house!

As a newly-wed, Mom continued to work in the Post Exchange during the remainder of my dad's Army commitment in Plattsburgh.  From there they embarked on a military life that took them as far as the Philippines and all around the U.S.; they never returned to Plattsburgh together to live, although Mom, brother Jim and I did live there for a time during World War II when Dad was overseas.  In late 1934 Dad was ordered to be stationed in the Philippines, where they lived for two years.   (After the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 that was signed into federal law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that established the process for the Philippines, then an American colony, to become an independent country after a ten-year transition period.  The provisions of the law allowed the U.S. to maintain military forces in the islands and to call all military forces of the Philippine government to be called into U.S. military service. Dad was an officer accountant in the Army and was tasked with participation in the development of the newly developing nation's financial system.)

As children, Jim and I loved to peruse Mom and Dad's collection of snapshots of their life in the Philippines.  Dad told us that he "worked hard" for a few hours every day, then headed out to the golf course, horseback riding and / or partying.  They lived a bit like the English during the Raj in India - quite "high on the hog," with a lovely cottage that included the services of a maid, a cook and a house-boy.  Mom played golf with Dad, bridge and social club with the ladies at the Officers’ Club, and did her fair share of partying.  They were young, had no children and had ample opportunity to enjoy an eventful and satisfying life.  The Philippines, in general, was fairly primitive at that time; I don't think Mom and Dad had much social contact with the "natives," again spending much of their time with other American military couples.

One memory that comes to mind about my childhood: In our home in Santa Clara, my dad had hung a patriotic picture of the American flag, framed and under glass, in Jim's bedroom.  One day Mom was cleaning house and called me into Jim's bedroom to show me something she'd found. On the back of the American flag picture were taped several photos the folks had taken of the naked "natives" of the Philippines - quite a treasure for the prepubescent Jimmy!!

Another tidbit:  In many photos of me as an infant and toddler, I am seen wearing beautiful handmade with hand-embroidered smocked organdy dresses - gifts from the families of their house helpers and friends who worked for my dad; my parents were loved and remembered by many during and after their time in the islands.

After life in the Philippines, Dad continued his career with the Army, but the world was becoming a distraught and dangerous place.  World War II 1939-1945 was a time of great global hardship for countries, governments and populations.  In learning about the atrocities of war and the loses sustained by both the Allied and Axis participants, my family was lucky.  I was born in the middle of the U.S. involvement on February 3, 1943 (Mom and Dad's 9th anniversary!) in San Francisco, where Mom had moved to be ready for a short R and R Dad had - he was with Mom for my birth in the French Hospital in San Francisco, and was with us, as I understand, for about 6 weeks after my arrival,  though he spent most of the time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific, as a financial officer under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.  Mom, myself and a nursemaid, and later Jimmy, passed the remainder of the war years driving back and forth across this big country in order to be in a place where Dad would be coming home for leave.  After the leave during which I was born, Dad was again in the Pacific until I was 9 months old, at which time, during an R and R, Mom and Dad conceived brother Jim.  Jimmy was born in Monterey, California on August 2, 1943, 18 months younger than me.  Dad didn't "meet" Jimmy until he was  over a year old - on the east coast during another R and R.

I marvel at how brave and independent Mom was during that time.  WWII changed so much of the culture of our world - from a young, unsophisticated, but energetic nation to a world power.  I suspect Mom was somewhat "liberated"  before the her marriage and the war, but it's hard to imagine how much gumption it took to travel across the U.S. with two babies and all the responsibilities of finding housing, etc. without the traditional husband, general manager in attendance. I'm really saddened to think that I don't remember giving my mother all the credit she deserved for the sacrifices and hard times she endured for her young family.

That brings me to share some of what I do personally remember.  My mom loved me, unconditionally; that is not to say that she didn't always strive to have us be, and do, better.  (A tenant of the history Roman Catholicism, that has only recently seen headway in changing, partnered with the Protestant Work Ethic, stipulated that one could never learn enough, do enough, work hard enough, be enough.  There was always room for improvement).  I can't truly say that that was Mom's mantra, but it was definitely Dad's, and she had to learn to accept and transmit that tenant:  Do your best at all times, and then do your best better!

Dad was the task-master, Mom was his assistant.  But, I know I was loved.  I remember her rubbing my head as we took our Sunday drive after Mass in our 1947 Hudson.  I remember gathering wild mushrooms in the New York countryside on Sunday afternoons and eating sautéed mushrooms on toast for Sunday dinner.  My memories of Mom are almost entirely those of her working:  repeatedly cleaning house every day - it always sparkled, preparing three formal meals a day that were served at prescribed times, ironing just about everything that ever got laundered, including towels, sheets and underwear - so they'd not be stiff from hanging on the clothesline.  And, she sewed all of my clothes - I rarely had a store-bought piece of clothing until I was in high school.  When Dad retired from the Army in 1952 he became a gentleman farmer as an avocation, and bought a little chicken and fruit orchard ranch in Campbell, California.  I remember accompanying Mom to the feed store about once a month to pick out feed sacks that would provide fabric for Jimmy's and my clothing.  She kept those laundered and ironed feed sacks in an Army trunk from which we'd chose one or two to become my new Easter dress or summer play clothes, or whatever.  And, I loved to play dress up with those feed sacks, becoming whatever heroine I'd seen most recently at Saturday matinee in the Campbell theater.

Along with all the work and responsibilities of being a wife, mother, homemaker, ranch woman and seamstress, Mom was also an accountant by education and experience; so, when I was about 8 years old, she began working part-time at Clark's Drug Store in Campbell as their bookkeeper.  What fun it was on a summer afternoon, to go to work with Mom and sit at the soda fountain having a tuna fish sandwich (on white bread) and a scrumptiously grand banana split while Mom balanced their books, managed utility company payments that were routinely paid at the drug store, and prepared their taxes.  You know, I didn't appreciate all that she was and did for all - and especially me.  I took so much for granted.  But she was the best.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Favorite Music:  Ave Maria by Schubert sung by Renée Flemming


  1. thank you for sharing lovely memories of your mom. I was born at the end of war and my parents did not read or write English therefore I now have three birthdates. I picked the oldest birthday as my official birthday during a court hearing to settle my delayed birth certificate. I worked on this from 1968 to 2002 trying to get legal documents from anywhere I thought I might find them i.e. hospitals, church, schools, etc. Most of the documents were archived in various national archive centers. I was at the threshold of a delayed certificate when 9/11 happened that changed the rules in obtaining a delayed birth certificate. More documentation were needed to prove I was a U.S. citizen. Hard frustrating work but at last I was able to obtain a delayed birth certificate, a passport, and much more.

    1. Wow, Rita, your travails were much more involved than my folks. It was 'funny' that my dad also had a little blip in his application for Social Security benefits. We'd always known his name was Leo Francis Ryan. When he applied for Social Security his birth certificate that was supplied by the state of Connecticut gave his birth name as Francis Leo Ryan. All his military and work documentation had it wrong!

    2. Oh, and thank you, Rita, for reading and commenting. Glad to be back 'in touch' with you.

  2. Dear Mary Pat, Your Blog means a lot to me. Sadly, and anxiously, we are living through what we believe to be Mom´s last months, or weeks. Talking with her and my beloved Sister almost daily, I am staying in Antigua with a planned trip to MI. in early Sept. It is possible we had our last embrace and kisses last Sept. Mom is ready, so very tired of the constant pain, falling, etc. We both know the time is coming, and I am trying to come to grips with the reality of her approaching death. We have mutually shared that I will stay here until Sept. I am very worried about my Sister, but, they are signing Hospice papers today, as I write, and some in home assistance should be the outcome.
    I enjoyed your family´s journies, my year older brother was born on a layover of Dad´s army stint in Lincoln Neb. as they traveled back to MI. I have missed connecting with you, and hope all is well.

    1. Hi David: Thanks for your warm, albeit sad, comment to my post. You are blessed to have your mom so long in your life. Mine passed away in 1977, much too early for me to completely realize just how wonderful and important she was to me. My prayers are with you and your sister in these waining days. It may be that she'll wait to see you again; but, if not, know that she'll go to her rest and peace. Thanks for checking out my blog. I miss all my friends in Guatemala..

  3. Nice MP - Like a living history lesson!! So great to see you writing again. Heading back to Antigua soon??

  4. A lot of useful information, thanks for sharing.