Tuesday, November 13th, 2012...7:42 am

Lucy Ann McVey Long (1928-2012)

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Several years ago, I suppose we first knew that something was wrong when Mom’s phone conversations became unusually short before she quickly handed the phone over to Dad. A short telephone conversation with Lucy seemed unimaginable. Legendary as talkative, garrulous, voluble, loquacious, Mom had a tea named after her, according to a friend of mine: Constant Comment. But the growing shadows of dementia made it difficult for her to follow conversations, and in her last weeks she went gentle into that good night. The last time I saw her a couple of weeks ago, she was asleep most of the time, but would wake up to say “I love you” or “You’re all so good to me,” and then fall asleep again. Now, the rest is silence.

I want to share with you three stories about Lucy. The first is a story that she told me. The other two are events that I witnessed.

Growing up in a family of ten children with an alcoholic father in a frequently chaotic household, my mother hungered for something that would transcend this instability. She once told me that, as children attending a Catholic school, she and her brothers and sisters could not afford the snacks in the school’s snack store, so the nuns of the school, who baked communion wafers to sell to parishes, fed them the “factory seconds,” the broken or irregular wafers as snacks. I think this story illuminates Mom’s relationship to the Church: During the week, unconsecrated communion wafers fed her body; on Sunday, consecrated wafers fed her soul. The Eucharist for her was real food.

The second story happened to Mom and me in the summer of 1963 when she took me swimming at Chevy Chase Lake swimming pool. Dad had just finished his associate degree at Montgomery Junior College and was starting at the University of Maryland. In 1963 Washington, DC, and its environs in the Southern state of Maryland were restive with racial tension. Later that summer would mark the March on Washington, the occasion of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” but its vision was not the tenor of the suburbs of Montgomery County that long hot summer. So on a summer weekend, Mom took me swimming to Chevy Chase Lake swimming pool, parking a couple of blocks away on Connecticut Avenue. But when we got to the front gate, we found the staff sitting at a card table in front of the gate. When my mother told them “One adult and one child,” they replied that the pool was now a membership club, but that membership only cost five dollars. A membership club, only five dollars in 1963 before the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act meant only one thing. Lucy knew what that meant. She said to them, “I know why you’re doing this, you’re doing this to keep colored people out of this pool; I think that’s disgraceful and I won’t have anything to do with it.” And she grabbed me by the arm and stormed back to the car. Now she could have said to herself, “You know, it’s an imperfect and unfair world, and there’s not much that I can do about it, and it’s just five dollars.” Or she could have simply told them, “No, thank you,” and left. But there was a reason she reamed them out new orifices that day. Lucy was never willing to be, in that memorable phrase of Thomas Merton, a “guilty bystander.” She understood in her bones that injustice to one, is injustice to all.  And she also knew that Christian morality was not confined to a narrow range of human behavior, to a narrowly personal domain, that the demands of her faith were as compelling on a hot Saturday afternoon as on a Sunday morning. Mom was on the bus before the nuns on the bus.

Where did this sense of social justice come from? She and her family had known anti-Catholicism in the city of her birth, Atlanta, Georgia. She and her family had not been permitted to rent homes in certain DC neighborhoods that had been redlined with the letter “N”—Negro. She also knew her mother’s story: My grandmother and her siblings were orphaned and each farmed out to different relatives, my grandmother to relatives who faithfully reminded her that she was there because of their charity. From her mother my mother understood that, while public assistance can be problematic, private charity is often mean, stingy, and unreliable.

My final story occurred later that year after John Kennedy’s assassination. She insisted that we pay our respects, not by watching TV but by going downtown to watch the funeral cortege. So she and I stood on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street in the bitter cold of that day as the Kennedy’s funeral procession made its slow way to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, then she and I walked up to the cathedral where we stood in the cold beside the limousines of dignitaries and cabinet secretaries parked bumper to bumper. One of the chauffers took mercy on this woman and her son shivering in the cold and let us sit in the back seat, listening to the funeral on the radio. The chauffeur, an African-American man from Atlanta, Mom’s birthplace, and mom discussed racial politics in America. Only Lucy would engage a cabinet secretary’s chauffer in a conversation about the most pressing social and political issue of the day. It seems also providential now that the limousine was that of Anthony Celebrezze, secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, given Mom’s lifelong concerns with all three, including her career with the Food and Drug Administration, her advocacy of health care reform, her finally getting to go to college to earn a bachelor’s degree in the early 1980s. Lucy was not content to be a distant observer of history; she wanted to be there where and when history happened. So she and Dad and I were in the gallery of the Senate in 1960 when the Medicare law first came up for a vote, the junior senator from Massachusetts sitting directly below us, and Vice President Richard Nixon, president of the Senate, sitting directly across from us. And on the day that Nixon was inaugurated in 1969, Lucy insisted in going over to the house of Democratic kingmaker, Clark Clifford, where a farewell for Lyndon Johnson was being held so she could tell President Johnson that she thought he was a great man for what he had done in the eventual passage of Medicare and the war on poverty. Only Lucy.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about Mom’s special relationship to music, music of all kinds from Broadway show tunes to sacred choral music. She and Dad for many years sang here at St. Patrick’s in the choir. In the 1940s and 50s she was denied that opportunity because the Church prohibited women from singing in liturgical choirs, which outraged her. So joining the choir here was the fulfillment of a dream. One of this choir’s favorite anthems was Virgil Thomson’s arrangement of the Isaac Watts metrical setting of the 23rd psalm, which begins:

My Shepherd will supply my need:

Jehovah is His Name;

In pastures fresh He makes me feed,

Beside the living stream.

And the anthem ends:

There would I find a settled rest,

While others go and come;

No more a stranger, nor a guest,

But like a child at home.

And Lucy, who never knew a stranger and always welcomed the guest, is now a child at home.

14 Comments

  • A beautifully touching remembrance of a strong, courageous woman.

  • Thanks, Jax; you knew her in her prime.

  • I think our moms are sitting together, delving into the depths of the modern politic…laughing and embracing all they’ve created…and, of course, criticizing all that is still left to tackle for equality…and passing on their hope that we, you and I and those who love us and respect us, continue to demand progress.

    My mom’s banging on that baby grand, and yours is singing right along, “No more a stranger, nor a guest,
    But like a child at home.”

    Yeah…it’s like that, Tom. For certain.

  • The eulogy is beautiful on so many levels, so allusive. Thanks for sharing–

  • Such a beautiful tribute to a great American mom. Mine too returned to school in the 80’s graduating with the class of 1984 having lived in the segregated South in the 60’s. Wishing you comfort in your loss.

  • my eyes are breming because my heart is full, thank you for this shareing.
    though they are gone we never lose the ones we Love.

  • Thanks to all of you for your kind words.

  • I am sorry for the lost of your dear mother. Thanks for sharing some of the events of her lifetime. Indeed, Lucy lived and followed what her heart and mind told her. Your mother was a courageous woman, and I am glad to have met her son, Thomas.

  • A lovely tribute to a very special woman. Thanks for sharing these wonderful remembrances – even without ever meeting her, I feel I’ve known her through knowing you. You are carrying on quite the legacy of love, faith, justice, and some holy hell-raising.

  • A beautiful tribute to a great lady – my sincere condolances on your Mom’s passing. She was a kind and gentle woman who always welcomed you into her home and family – a true neighbor. Many memories of her, your family and our Mom’s long conversations.

    It may not be on Manorfield Road but she is now home.

  • A beautiful story of a beautiful person from her beautiful son. You were blessed with a wonderful legacy – you share so well.

  • Cathy Mae Migliorini O'Malley
    January 12th, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Dear Tom,
    I cannot believe we have never met!! Your mom, Lucy, introduced my Uncle Lou Migliorini to his wife, Norrine Hunt. Her sister Ellen, introduced my mom & dad & was my godmother. Lucy & my mom, Amba Migliorini, maintained a friendship throughout the years. Lucy & Tom came to my home for my parties. I loved Lucy & her stories. I send Tom a Christmas card each year. No one let any of us (Migliorinis) know Lucy had passed. I called Lucy when she started suffering from Dementia. Tom told me what was happening. I still called to say “hi” to both until my calls were no longer answered.
    I loved your “Lucy stories”. I learned a little about my own family history. My grandmother, Lucy’s Aunt Catherine, was one of those children raised by an older sister. I never knew Lucy was born in Atlanta, Ga. So there is a whole chapter of my family history I know nothing about. I often spent summers in DC at Aunt Ellen’s. I loved it there. Everyone was so wonderful to me.
    I hope we can share family stories sometime. Please let me know how your dad is doing.

  • Lucy was so kind and generous to everyone. She thoroughly enjoyed engaging even teenagers (me included) on the issues of the day. I remember her boundless energy and amazing enthusiasm. I understand completely that short phone conversations were a warning sign to you. A short phone conversation with here was more than unlikely. But it was always time well-spent. I always left those conversations energized.
    She was a force of nature!

  • Ursula Bono Yeatman
    June 18th, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    I was looking at FB and ran across the name Jim Long ” could this be the Jimmy Long from my neighborhood?” I wondered. A little internet creeping and a reference to Manorfield Rd. Convinced me. I am truly sorry for the loss of your mother. I am going through that now with my parents. It’s so very difficult with Dad’s Alzheimer’s and Mom’s dementia. They live in WV and the distance is difficult to do anything. I’d love to hear from you and see how it’s going. Hope to befriend you on FB; that is if you remember me.

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