Remembering Miss Ellie on the 10th Anniversary of Her Death

Me and Miss Ellie 2

With my mom on my high school graduation day from Georgetown Prep in May 1978.

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.

The examples of her sisters Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC – the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Albany and a missionary in Bolivia respectively – also inspired her to act.

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.”

JP and Miss Ellie Wedding 1

July 19,1949. Her wedding day.

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.

 

Advertisements
Standard

Their Last Game, Chapter Four

When Bobby arrived, the Tornado wasn’t in the driveway; his folks and Anna hadn’t returned from Uncle Finn’s. The Vista Cruiser was there, and if JP was home, he could drive Bobby to the hospital. But if JP was out, Bobby was screwed.

When Bobby entered the kitchen he saw JP standing by the stove, barefoot and in his boxer shorts and wearing an Ali- Frazier Fight of the Century t-shirt.

Ali Frazier fight

Poster for Ali – Frazier Fight of the Century.

In his left hand, JP held “The Washington Post,” creased and folded over, most likely to the sports page. Bobby knew JP paid too much for his shirt off a guy in Georgetown, but, for his hero, Ali, he said it was worth it.

Watching his brother turn strips of bacon in a large cast iron black pan filled with scrambled eggs, Bobby noted the lit cigarette resting on the countertop, and he watched JP bend and take a drag from it, drawing the paper closer to burner’s flame.

“Oh, crap,” JP said, and Bobby saw his brother look everywhere. The pan was on fire, and his brother sprinted toward the pantry door and opened it and threw the pan into the backyard. The door slammed, and Bobby saw JP, the fire apparently out, return to the kitchen.

“What the hell?” JP said. “Weren’t you supposed to be at Uncle Finn’s?”

“I … ”

“Jesus; I’m sorry. What the hell happened to you?”

“I was in a fight.”

“I guess so,” JP said, and Bobby saw JP approach him. “Take your shirt off so I can get a better look.” It stung Bobby when JP ran his hand over his wound. “You’re going to need a couple stitches. Keep that shirt on it. I’ll be right back.”

When JP returned, he held a tube of Neosporin, a gauze pad and some scissors and tape, and he was dressed in a navy golf shirt and chino shorts.

Bobby removed his shirt from his head and let his brother rub the ointment into his wound, and accepted the gauze pad JP handed him, and JP said, “Hold this on the cut while I cut the tape.”

Bobby said, “How do you know to do all this?”

“Guys at my job are always getting hurt, and they think I’m the smartest so it’s my job to patch them up. Okay. You can take your hand off.”

With the tape now applied to the gauze, JP said, “That ought to hold until I can get you to Georgetown. Hang on while I put this crap away. Then we’ll hit the road.”

Bobby sat in the station wagon’s passenger seat and waited for JP to adjust the seat. “Sorry,” JP said, his shifting the seat jarred Bobby. “I don’t know where anything is in this boat, and my legs are longer than mom’s.”

“Now. Tell me how all this happened. I’m not going to yell at you. I just want to know what happened.” They were waiting for the light at Nebraska and Nebraska to change, and when it did, JP turned left down Foxhall.

“I was shooting buckets at Friendship, and Harrison Bentley, the kid I slugged at Friendship and his buddy Rick Jenkins and these two goons I had never seen before ganged up on me. They got me down and started slamming me into the blacktop.”

Bobby’s voice was shaking, but he saw JP smile, and he said, “Take it easy.” They were at Foxhall and Reservoir now, waiting for the traffic on Foxhall to clear, and when it did, JP turned left down Reservoir.

“Okay,” Bobby said, “the worst part is this little weenie Bentley just stood back and let the others take their shots. After they’re through, the little snot acts like he’s been wailing on me all along.”

He looked up at JP, who smiled and said, “That Bentley kid was a girl to get other guys to do his dirty work, but that’s what guys like him always do. And no matter what, when you get into it with other guys, pay back is going to come, and you’ve got to ask: is it worth it?”

“And there’s nothing you can do about rich jerks like Bentley. They’re the worse kind. But jerks come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and you can’t beat sense into them just because they look funny at you at a bar or you don’t like the pants they have on or something.”

When they pulled into the lot at Georgetown University Hospital, Bobby observed JP turn to him and look at him as if to ask if he got it, and Bobby smiled and nodded. JP parked the car. “Okay; we’ve got this boat docked,” he said. “Let’s get you patched up.”

Standard

Their Last Game, Chapter Two

shirley povich

Legendary “Washington Post” sportswriter Shirley Povich.

Bobby sat at the kitchen table the next morning at seven, and read about the Washington Senators in Shirley Povich’s column in the “Washington Post,” which even a kid could understand.

He thought a lot about the Senators’ planned move to Texas at the end of the season, but the red scratches above his knuckles concerned Bobby more.

His mom had bought the story about hitting his hand on a fence, but he suspected his dad only went along with it not to upset her.

Bobby heard the front door, and JP walked into the kitchen returning from a Friday night out. He was nineteen and had taken off from school to work construction.

6’4”, with a broad chest, and thick, muscular arms, he wore chinos, and brown Weejuns, and his receding black hair fell in ringlets over the collar of his crisp, French blue button down, and thick, long sideburns encroached upon his cheeks.

Bobby watched JP walk to the refrigerator and take out a half gallon can of Hawaiian Punch and rummage through a drawer and find a can opener and open the can. His brother stepped over to the cupboard and reached in and pulled down a glass and poured the drink unsteadily into it.

Some juice spilled on to the counter, and Bobby watched JP wipe the spill with a sponge on the counter and take a long drink of the juice and turn to Bobby and say, “How’s the boy?”

JP forced himself to be still and his eyes wandered away from Bobby, and his thick speech made Bobby wonder if JP was drunk. Bobby said, “Not bad.” And Bobby watched JP take another long drink, and slam his glass back to the counter, which startled Bobby.

Bobby clenched and unclenched his hand, and JP smiled and said, “What’s going on with your hand?”

“I punched this kid Harrison Bentley, and scratched my hand on his braces.”

“Did this Bentley kid get in any shots on you?”

“No.”

“Why the face?”

“I don’t want mom to know.”

“She won’t figure it out unless this kid squeals on you. Will he?”

“He’s too afraid of me.”

“You have nothing to worry about.”

“What about dad?”

“It won’t upset him if you’re fighting, if the kid had it coming, and he doesn’t want mom to know her angel is fighting.” His brother smiled and laughed, and said, “I’m going to hit it, buddy. Don’t sweat this thing.”

“Alright. Thanks,” Bobby said. Even if his brother’s words seemed to run together too quickly, Bobby still heard what he meant. And he watched his brother try to keep his balance as he left the room.

Standard