“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Veronica was born in 1893, a block up from the Mississippi River, in old St Louis, Missouri, a city at that time, more Southern than Midwest, the precious first daughter of a riverboat pilot.

When she was 12 years old, she got her first ride on a Delta Queen-style riverboat, right out of “Show Boat,” steam whistle, paddle wheels and all, down to Charleston, South Carolina. She fell in love with that city and talked about it for all of her life.

She was a beautiful, headstrong young Irish girl, the daughter of an Irish immigrant who, with six brothers, had landed in America and gone into the coal business. But he dreamed of being a riverboat pilot.

He was my grandfather, Jim “The Dude” Conlon, a fancier of Tennessee sour mash whiskey and cards.

She was Veronica Elizabeth Conlon, my mother. Sunday is her day, and this is some of her life.

When she was 9, her beloved mother died, and her father, to console her, bought her a pony. I can’t remember what its name was, but whenever a picture of one popped up somewhere, she’d say, “I had a pony when I was a girl.”

Her idyllic childhood came to an end when, on her 17th birthday, her father lost his boatyard and his money, and as she said, “He went to drink,” and died not long after that. Her oldest sister, Mamie, married young and moved away.

Veronica, with only a basic Catholic girls school education, was set adrift, and had to go to work as a typist file clerk in the office of the shirt company that had made her father’s fancy dress shirts. She was a very proud woman, and that experience embittered her. For the rest of her life, she would tell that story, over and over.

When she met my father, a handsome and newly minted naval officer, at a friend’s Christmas party, she knew her life was going to change trains.

In later years, after he died, and we were alone together in the hard times sneaking a cheap supper at some little Chinese cafe, she’d weave stories about Christmas with him in Charleston, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, fancy balls and dinners at the French restaurants in Algiers, Louisiana, where he was stationed. It seems to me, now looking back, that she spent most of her later life living in the golden gardens of the past.

My father was 20 years older than she, and she had nine children with him before he died, and when he did, suddenly at age 67, she was only 47. That could not have been easy for her.

With her other children grown and moved away, she was left with just my baby sister and myself, and she had to face a life startlingly unlike any she had ever known. That too, wasn’t easy. She took part time sales jobs and went to nursing school at night. While my oldest sister took the baby sister, I insisted on sticking it out with Veronica, moving from apartment to apartment, living one adventure of survival after another, until time and circumstances pulled us apart.

A strong-willed and impatient woman, she rarely got along with any of her children, and I was no exception. But we were stuck with each other through hard times and good, the storyteller and her future biographer.

I was her “far away boy,” dropping quarters in pay phones from all over America, to brighten her days with postcards and snapshots from Tokyo and Hong Kong, that she stuck in the mirror of her dresser wherever she lived.

The night she died, I was doing standup at a comedy club in Los Angeles. I was called to the phone an hour before I had to go on and do my stint. That wasn’t easy, but I was Veronica’s boy, who learned from her early on, that nothing in life was going to come easy.

Veronica closed her green eyes for the last time in the Rosewood Nursing home at age 91, in a sunny room overlooking her beloved river. She’d had a long life, nine children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. And oh yes, she had a pony.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. This Mother’s Day column is taken from his forthcoming memoir, ” A Life in Pieces.”

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