The Mother of All Fears

When my mother was five years old, her father dropped dead from a heart attack at the kitchen table.  She witnessed this.  It breaks my heart to think that such a young, sweet girl would have to endure such a tragic sight. To make matters worse, her mother suffered a series of miscarriages and stillborns throughout their marriage.  The day Joseph Donahue’s heart gave out, his wife, Mary, was three months pregnant.  She carried the baby to term, only to deliver another stillborn.  Thus, the die was cast, and Joanne, an only child, began a life fixated on death and all things macabre.

As a child, this dark fixation was fueled by the pagan babies she adopted in church to save from the fires of hell.  As an adult, it found its energy in all of life’s tragedies. When I was growing up, this was most exemplified in my mother’s signature send-off when kissing us good night.  The only family I knew who was tucked in when I was a kid was The Walton’s on TV.  But when we went to kiss my mom goodnight, all of us said something to the tune of “Goodnight, Mom.  Love you. See you in the morning.” Her response: “God willing.”  God willing??  No, “I love you, too”, or “Sweet dreams.”  God willing!  I would lie in my trundle bed, and imagine the angel of death coming in her long, gossamer gown, and her silvery blue hair, to suck all of the life out of my mom, and carry her soul to heaven.  I hated that angel.  And those words would echo in my ears as I tried to will myself to sleep.  God willing.  Why would God want to take a woman with seven children?  What would His will want with Joanne Trainer from Thunderhead Road?  (Years later, my sister Kristen told me that she would sneak into my parents’ room in the night and place her tiny fingers under my Mom’s nose to feel her breathing.)  So, I found comfort in saying my prayers.  I prayed that God’s will would see fit to keep my mother on Earth, because we needed her here—she had seven kids to look after, for Christ’s sake (sorry, Jesus).  And I ended my prayers with the most comforting of songs to a good Catholic boy: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Ahhh, Death, the immortal comfort in our home.

One of the first times I realized the impact of my mother’s obsession with death was when she was giving me driving directions to a party in Philadelphia.  It went something like: “Make a right where that boy was hit and killed by the drunk driver, then go past the funeral parlor where your Uncle Billy was laid out.  Turn onto the road where I had to walk home from work that night your brother forgot to pick me up and that strange man tried to mug me, and just keep going straight…”

There I was, in the car, alone, with my mother’s directions, wondering why I was becoming increasingly anxious as I approached my destination, and it hit me—she’s crazy. The woman is completely fixated with tragic outcomes. She should have married Edward Gorey, creator of the Gashleycrumb Tinies.

Not too long after that, we were away at my brother’s graduation from college.  Again, I knew her death obsessed clutches had a hold on my thoughts.  We were sitting around the indoor pool of the hotel, when I realized I needed something from the room.  Before I left, I immediately thought of the horrible story about a young boy who was abducted in a hotel years before—snatched from the hallway while going to his room, never to be seen again.  I no sooner pushed this dark thought from my mind and announced I needed to go back to the room to get something, when my mother pipes up—without missing a beat—“Be careful, hon, remember that little boy who was kidnapped and murdered in that hotel.” Sadly I did remember him– one of the many anonymous phantoms who filled our days with imaginary angst and dread. Yet, I was past my kidnapping prime—I was twenty years old.  Should this have comforted me?

Joanne never tired of regaling us with stories of characters (assumed real) who met untimely, dastard demises:  the little boy who fell out of the tree, the girl whose hand was knocked off by a telephone pole because she stuck it too far out the window, the boy who refused to wear a raincoat and then died from pneumonia. Each victim a faceless character from “up state”, her euphemistic attempt at keeping danger a few counties over.  As a kid, whenever I thought of “up state”, I thought of streets lined with body parts from all those kids who lost limbs because they were bad listeners, and I imagined the cemetery with all of the victims whose head stones relayed their accidental demises a la haunted house style: Here lies Sara who died from catching fire after stealing her mother’s cigarettes…

When I was in third grade, a real tragedy struck our town: a young woman of about twenty was killed in a car accident. “Grace” was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car.  She was from a large, well-liked family, and to make matters worse, she was an identical twin. I can remember many Sundays watching her family at church—all nine of them—lined up in loving order, with Grace and her twin like two statuesque beauties standing side by side.  It seemed as if the entire world mourned the loss of this bright star.  My brother Joe, a year older than I, was in school with Grace’s brother.  He wanted to go to the viewing.  Not wanting to be left out, I asked if I could go, too.  My mother obliged.  It was one of the saddest experiences of my life.  The streets outside the funeral parlor were lined with mourners, many of them Grace’s peers—young people in the prime of their lives.  Tears flowed abundantly.  I remember waiting in line, the wailing chorus of “No’s” and “whys” echoing through my mind.  By the time we neared the family, and then the dreaded casket, my anxiety had reached a frenzied state.  This was a scene that no child should have to witness.

Realizing her mistake in bringing us to this tragic event, my mother convinced my father that it would be a good idea to get our minds’ off of the evening by taking us to see a movie.  Now, in my house, a movie was a big treat. It was something we did a couple times a year! (Pre-cable people!)  This was serious.  My sad ears perked up.  A movie was just the thing we needed to wash away the sadness.  My mother took us to the late showing of a film called The Champ, a remake of the classic Mickey Rooney film, starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunnaway, and a young boy named Ricky Schroeder.  It was the saddest movie of the decade!  In the end, the washed up, has-been boxer makes one last attempt at redeeming himself by fighting in the ring to reclaim his reputation, and his son’s complete admiration.  He dies.  HE DIES!  My mother took us to the one movie that had a sadder ending than any movie I had ever seen.  My brother and I cried harder at this than we did at the viewing.  At one point, Joe’s sobbing became so loud that he had to leave the theater.  In hindsight, it is hard to believe that my mom could make a special outing like a movie sadder than the death of a young woman, but she did.  I could be more understanding if she did not know what the film was about—but it was a remake of a classic film that she had seen!  It has one of the saddest endings of all time.  Not to mention the fact that it was the late show.

In my mind, when I replay the events of that night, we go out for ice cream, a nice bowl of ice cream, and my mom calmly assuages our fears of death, and tells us how proud she was of her brave big boys being so tough at the
sad event.  Such is the childhood of my dreams. Instead, I’m sure she reminded us to offer it up for all the poor souls in purgatory, and told us that we were lucky because we were all still alive. When we got home well past midnight, I simply wanted to go to bed and forget this day ever happened. I kissed my mother, then said my familiar nighttime chorus: “Good night, mom. Love you. See you in the morning…” As I walked up the stairs, I could hear her reassuring me: “God willing.” God willing indeed.

All drawings done by the amazing Edward Gorey. Visit


  1. Michael, I am so impressed by your writings! They are truly publishable. Love them. Keep them coming. I am howling as I read this one, as I have placed the same fears in my children only to have them grow into anxiety stricken teens! where the heck was the parenting book when i needed it? I put all of my fears on these tiny people that did not have any tools to handle the adult thoughts i harbored. My children mean more to me than life!! I always say “God-Willing”. Funny thing those of us that are faith filled should just simply trust, after all we haven control of his will, after all. So Proud of you!!~ to know the writer of this great stuff. xo


  2. my parents would also say “God Willing” to things like: “see you later” or ” next week can we…….” but at least we were always told “I love you” I guess “God Willing” is a Catholic thing! I still use it today myself!!


  3. michael-i just reread this to my sister just to show her how funny and great it is and after we were literally peeing our pants with laughter, she said to me-remember our mother said something to this before we went to bed-we would say-“Goodnight mom, see ya in the morning” then she would say “Hope so” and then she would make us say “So do I”-these Irish mothers right~!


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