Off the Record: Celebrating 100 with Mom

The editor’s mother, Mary Sweeney, at her 100th birthday party on Sunday.

Many, many years ago — 34, to be exact — I made what I thought was an interesting observation to my mother. I was 33 at the time and she was 66.

“Gee, Mom, do you realize you’re twice as old as I am?”

I don’t remember her exact response, but it was probably a lot more polite than I deserved. She pointed out that percentage-wise, I’d be catching up to her as the years went by.

Well, here we are, 34 years later. I’m now 67, and Mom, bless her heart, just turned 100 on Nov. 20. I am now not half her age, but two-thirds her age. I’m narrowing the gap, but I doubt I’ll ever catch up to her entirely, especially if she keeps adding on the years.

We all celebrated her birthday last Sunday at her residence in St. Paul. Between her seven children, who were all there, and her countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren (well, they are countable, but I just don’t have the time), her sister, her cousins, her nieces and nephews and all the friends she has made over the years, there were 120 there to wish her well. I’ve heard old people mourn that as they get older they lose their friends. Mom does too, but she just keeps making new ones.

Mary (Connolly) Sweeney has had an exciting life. She grew up in St. Paul during the height of Prohibition, when St. Paul was well-known as a haven for criminals on the most-wanted list elsewhere in the country. Thanks to an agreement between the corrupt police chief and the local crime boss all the bank robbers, kidnappers, bootleggers, safecrackers and other assorted bad guys in the country were welcome to come and rest up in St. Paul without fear of arrest, as long as they behaved themselves (and no doubt made nominal payments to the Police Chief Retirement Fund).

Mom tells the story of how one day she and a friend were standing outside their neighborhood bakery, sniffing the wonderful bakery aroma and staring at the goodies on display. A man walked by and asked them, “What’s your favorite doughnut?” Mom answered, “Bismarcks!” and her friend said her favorite. The man took them inside and bought them each a doughnut.

A little bit later Mom saw a picture in the paper of John Dillinger.

“That’s the man who bought me the bismarck,” she told her parents.

Later on, she met a handsome, suave young man, Jack Sweeney. (His high school yearbook even calls him “Suave Jack.) They fell in love and would have gotten married sooner, but World War II got in the way.

As soon as the war was over, however, she and Dad got married and I think they started the Baby Boom. I think my older sister may be Baby #1 in that generation.

They had seven children, sent them all to Catholic school and college, and set a wonderful example to all of us on how to be a family. Of course, much of that revolved around the family dinner table, where we all met and ate together, every night. Mom would try to teach us manners, like not putting elbows on the table and not chewing with your mouth open. It was often like feeding time at the zoo, but we are all able today to operate in polite society. And the lessons we learned around the dinner table about life and society and respecting each other have lasted just as long as the etiquette lessons.

Mom has always been the keeper of the family lore. She shared stories that her grandmother told her, and so we are aware of what life was like growing up in Minnesota in the late 1800s.

She has taught us all a lot, much more than I could ever recount here.

I called her up last week on her birthday to wish her well.

“Well Mom, you made it!” I told her.

“Yes, but what am I going to do now?” she said.

“Shoot for 101,” I told her.

And she will, too, with grace and courage and the love of her family and growing crowd of friends.

——

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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