Matt Markey: Heart made this outdoors matriarch larger than life

·6 min read

May 9—So many letters, emails, telephone calls, and personal conversations start with the same disclaimer: "I don't fish or hunt, but ...".

The majority of the time those words come from a woman, and what is said after the "but" always convinces me that these individuals have much more in common with those hunters and anglers than they think.

Some of the most passionate conservationists, wildlife watchers, ecosystem guardians, and stewards of the earth come from the ranks of the non-hunting, non-fishing folks who are every bit the outdoors enthusiasts. They feed the birds, pick up the litter of others, compost the garden, prefer a natural landscape to something that looks like a golf course, and they view the air, water, and soil as things to be protected, not exploited.

I think my mother might have been one of the founding members of that distinct "I don't fish or hunt, but ... " club. She never touched a firearm, never cast a fly, and left the fish cleaning and wild game dressing to others, but she never missed a chance to take a walk through the woods, look for driftwood along a windy shore, or turn the trees in her backyard into something that looked like a disjointed clunky bird feeder wind chime.

She loved the water, and would choose Crane Creek State Park for a family outing, or any place where you could pull off the road by a creek or stream. For Mom, there was no such thing as a picnic season. We did picnics when the crocuses were just punching through the mulch, picnics when the leaves were falling, and a few that included snow flurries.

I think she took us on those picnics, those long walks in the woods, and those unscheduled stops along a country creek because she knew that we would treasure such experiences. She taught us to feed the birds, care for the garden, and respect the waterways, and she made it fun for us. It all fit, since, looking back, my mother spent a lifetime in the business of caring for others, teaching them important daily lessons, keeping them safe, and making them happy.

How could one extremely modest and reserved woman, a registered nurse, World War II veteran, mother with eight daughters and six sons, wife of a busy physician and surgeon, phenomenal cook, philanthropist to the neighbors and the world, caretaker for her aging parents, and surrogate mother to any troubled soul she encountered — how could she do all of that?

It was the size of her heart that made it all possible. Not the physical dimension, but the virtual one. Mom was a shepherd who always seemed to find wayward lambs. She was a tireless, compassionate, courageous, and very spiritual shepherd. It's a mom thing.

She brought order to what, with 14 children and a 17-room three-story house, could have easily morphed into daily family chaos fit for a National Lampoon movie screenplay. But Mom provided the steady and subtle leadership that a brood of that size and diverse personalities needed.

Mom was excessively humble and quietly brilliant, which made her a contradiction in today's "Everybody Look at Me" world. So smart she skipped a grade in private school, graduated from high school at 16, entered nursing school at 16 even though the minimum age was 18, and then graduated magna cum laude.

A stint at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore followed where Mom was the nurse supervisor of a newborn nursery with 40-50 babies under her care, and that big heart certainly helping with the task at hand. At 21 she enlisted, soon shipped out to England, and by age 23 she achieved the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

When forced to recount some of her experiences during World War II, Mom mentioned caring for wounded American soldiers as well as German prisoners-of-war. She added that the level of care and the compassion she dispensed did not vary based on the uniform. "Those young German boys were just as scared and in need of attention as our boys were," she would tell us.

After the war, she and Dad started a family while he attended college and then medical school. She continued to work as a nurse while raising her young children. Later, after they settled in Ohio and my father opened his medical practice, Mom's giving and caring kicked into overdrive.

That quiet lady with the big heart loaded the station wagon and took boxes of clothing, toys, blankets, and diapers to the migrant worker camps in the area. She collected all of the excess medical supplies and pharmaceutical samples and shipped them to the Notre Dame nuns' mission in New Guinea, a similar operation in Jordan, and a women's care clinic in Selma.

The children at the St. Labre Indian School in Montana had a special place in that big heart on Mom's, and they received regular shipments of winter coats, hats, gloves, and mittens, along with school supplies, coloring books and crayons.

Her heart was big enough to take in a couple of friends of her children who had trouble at home and needed a place to stay, but they got much more than that from Helen Matthews Markey. And her heart never failed when put to the test.

The most memorable illustration I recall was from 50 years ago when, on one otherwise quiet night, the phone rang and it was the housekeeper at the St. Wendelin rectory calling. Someone had left an infant on the doorstep of the priests' residence and they were not sure what to do, so they called Mrs. Markey. Thirty minutes later, Renee was getting a bath in our kitchen sink, getting her severe diaper rash attended to by an Army nurse who once cared for dozens of newborns in a large hospital, and then she was rocked to sleep by the most experienced baby-rocker in town.

Mom, who also was caring for an infant of her own at the time, was Renee's surrogate mother for about a year, feeding, loving, and fawning over that innocent little girl without reservation, in the only manner she possessed. We all saw what we already knew — there was no second tier with Mom and her heart.

So today on Mother's Day, I remember the outdoors lady who amazed me in so many ways, but always with the size of her heart. There are adults in the Philippines today who received pediatric diabetes medication 40 years ago from a lady in Ohio they never met. There are moms and dads in Africa who had flashcards and pencils and backpacks when they were in elementary school because some woman in Ohio had this magnificent heart. Renee and dozens of other folks, along with those 14 children, are likely better people today because of the influence on their lives that came from a woman whose kindness was unlimited, due to the size of her heart.

The marker on her final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery is subtle and humble, just like Mom.

Had it been proportional to the size of her heart, it would rival those of the presidents, generals and admirals also buried there.

First Published May 8, 2021, 8:00am

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