When Mary was born, telephones, automobiles and electric lights were a rarity, but Civil War veterans lived in every town. The ice man kept the food cold, the mailman brought almost all communications from far-flung friends and family, and the paper boy delivered the news. Armies still had horse mounted cavalry; the War to End All Wars was still in the near future and a worse one followed twenty-five years later. Mary celebrates her hundredth birthday this week.
In 1912 western gunman and legendary town marshal of Dodge City, Wyatt Earp, had another seventeen years to go; Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, and Harriet Tubman, former slave and station keeper on the Underground Railroad, still lived. The Titanic hit the iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. Jackson Pollock, Woody Guthrie, “Lightening” Hopkins, Ben Hogan, John Paul I, Julia Child, “Lady Bird” Johnson and Gene Kelly along with Mary Laracy Smith were born. Mary was the daughter of second generation Irish immigrants, Jim and Molly (Manley) Laracy. Everyone called her Toots. (“Toots” rhymes with foot, not loot. As in “Hey, Toots, you’re good looking.”)
Three younger sisters, Mildred, Cecelia and Elizabeth followed Mary along with an older brother, Billy, and the twin to Elizabeth (Betty), the baby brother John (Sonny). Sonny’s WWII Army buddy, Jack, met and married his sister Betty and had six children of whom I am the oldest. The Laracy girls, Toots, Mill, Babe and Girly broke the mold. Only Toots and Girly (Mary and Betty) remain with us; they have been sisters for over 91 years, and what a century it was.
Mary was on the leading edge of the “Greatest Generation”, which literally saved the Western world. The “eternal” German Third Reich, the Russian Revolution, indeed the whole terrible history of the Soviet Union, came and went. The Spanish Flu took more human beings than the Black Plague. Mary and her generation triumphed over the bloodiest century in human history and the century that cascaded humankind with more scientific and technological growth than the 20,000 years before it. Her generation faced the carnage, deprivation and exponential change with courage, good-humored resolve and steady intelligence, still managing to have many good times along the way. They rose up out of the Great Depression determined to leave a better, safer and more prosperous world for their children, and they did.
Billy and Sonny followed their father, Jim, to become expert sheet metal workers. The girls all worked in the war effort and after the war for the most part stayed home to raise their children; my mother, Betty, was a telephone operator spending hours in front of one of those celebrated peg boards with a hundred plugs and wires everywhere. She heard first hand of the Walpole boys who never came home from the Pacific, Northern Africa or Europe.
Cliff Smith married Mary and after the war moved steadily upward to become an executive in the local Kendall Mills textile plant, then he moved on to New York City. The young Smith family moved to Fairfield County, Connecticut. Their two children, David and Judy, were among 16 first cousins, with a mini baby boom of us born to the Laracy children within two years of the end of World War II. All four Laracy women had babies in 1946. The children frequently visited and slept over with their cousins into their teen years. The personal kindness and hospitality of the aunts and uncles greatly benefitted the nephews and nieces with many warm, fun memories and the security of the love in their homes. I remember one “cousin” visit to Connecticut, when Cliff killed a poisonous copperhead snake with a rake to much acclaim from us kids. At the Smith cottage on Lake Ossipee in New Hampshire, David and Judy tried with great fervor and skill, but largely unsuccessfully through no fault of their own, to teach me to water ski.
The sisters raised their children in the “Ozzie and Harriet”, “Father Knows Best” years of the fifties and early sixties, protecting their childhoods through long summer days. We had bikes and baseball gloves, good schools and solid values — values we challenged and denigrated through the late sixties and seventies, only to rediscover them with our own families and try as best we could to pass them to our children.
Whether history will find the Baby Boomers to be worthy successors to the Greatest Generation is still very much an open question, as is what the next century will bring for our children and grandchildren. But what is not an open question is the legacy of these amazing Americans, who overcame challenges never confronted by any previous generation and won.
When my Papa Laracy died, he had written my name (“Jackie”) in his little prayer book, “The Man of God, Devotions for Catholic Men”, and so thus it was bequeathed to me. The inscription of the gift to him was, “To Pa from Toots, 12-25-1941”, only a couple of weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor. One of the prayers in it is this, “we beseech thee..amidst all the various changes of this our life and pilgrimage we may ever be protected by Thy help.”
God bless you and keep you at this milestone, Aunt Mary. Happy Birthday, Toots. We’ll lift a glass in your honor.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
Franklin D. Roosevelt