On the 10th anniversary of my mom Ellen Branson Byrd’s death – October 15, 2007 – one memory recalls her enduring influence upon my life: the day Miss Ellie, as we came to call her, brought me to a red brick row house at the corner of 5th St. NW and Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in June 1976.
We were there to participate in the celebration for the House of Ruth’s opening: a new community residence for homeless women.
Now a sophisticated non-profit organization with a more than a $7 million budget, which provides housing, daycare and counseling services to 1,000 women and children annually, the House of Ruth back then promised to shelter eight homeless women.
But you wouldn’t have believed this was a modest undertaking by my mom’s enthusiasm, happiness, and pride that day. Like the others actively involved with the event, mom was especially pleased Eunice Kennedy Shriver would be there for the ribbon cutting. 16 then I knew it was a boon to have a Kennedy bless your event.
But I didn’t have quite the same kind of reaction when, with an almost reverential tone, mom introduced me to Dr. Veronica Maz, who founded the House of Ruth. Miss Ellie’s attitude was understandable.
Having also helped start So Others Might Eat (SOME), she was about to launch the House of Ruth and was later instrumental founding Martha’s Table: three organizations, which still fight poverty in the District.
But I didn’t know enough then to be impressed by what Maz had done or was trying to do. I was there because service was important to my mom.
Her devout parents, the Sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Comforter School, and the Visitation Sisters at Georgetown Visitation instilled Miss Ellie with her desire to serve.
Years later, after my time in the Jesuit Volunteers Corps, and my continued work at Catholic non-profits, and opposing the death penalty, my mom proudly, invariably introduced me as her “peace and justice son.”
But I hadn’t necessarily revealed any inclination then to live a life of service, or expressed any interest in social justice. Perhaps, though Miss Ellie had seen something she wanted to nurture in me by including me that day.
Plus, on a practical level, young and healthy and strong, I was good for lifting and moving things. Which is what I was precisely called upon to do. I don’t possess many memories of that day, but I distinctly recall being asked to carry chairs out to the lawn for the ribbon cutting.
In more than 35 years of organizing conferences, meetings, fundraisers, forums, and celebrations, I have carried, set up, unfolded, and stacked countless chairs for numerous groups in several cities. That day, my mom’s invitation prepared me for my life’s work, and a life of service.
I’m profoundly grateful to Miss Ellie for the seeds she planted that day. They grew into a life lived for others, rooted in her kind of faith and always striving for justice. And, as the old song says: “I won’t take nothing for my journey now.”
My mom continued to serve. She was on the House of Ruth’s first Board of Directors, and soon after that she was one of the first graduates of the Archdiocese of Washington’s lay ministry formation program Education for Parish Service. For several years after that, she enjoyed teaching CCD at her parish, Little Flower.
In later years, mom’s focus turned toward re-entering the workforce, tending to my dad as his health rapidly deteriorated from emphysema, and caring for her grandchildren. That service limited Miss Ellie’s community service, but she remained curious about and engaged in the world.
She read “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times” and wanted to know what the Pope, the Bishops, leading Theologians, and political commentators thought of the day’s issues.
And mom often ran late for Sunday mass because she couldn’t tear herself away from “Meet the Press,” with “that nice Catholic” Tim Russert. While others preferred reading Stephen King novels before going to bed, Miss Ellie liked contemporary Theology books, and urged her children to read her favorites.
Mom also cultivated Jesuits as friends and advisors, and was particularly devoted to the Visitation sisters, often returning to Visitation to attend alumna events, Days of Reflection, and of course, mass in their chapel.
She finally took a special interest in my work. And compiling a scrapbook of my publications, she became my biggest fan. And, I trust, as she enters her second decade in her true home, Miss Ellie roots me on still.