In this story from December 2007, bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark shares the joys—and some sorrows—that she has experienced during the Christmas season.
- Posted on Dec 14, 2016
It was a September evening in 1964, only hours after my husband Warren’s funeral. When the children went to bed, I sat in the tall fireside chair that had at one time graced the parlor of my mother’s childhood home. I had to be alone. I was beyond tears. This is the rest of my life, I thought.
I knew how much the children would miss Warr. My heart ached for them. I knew about all the birthdays and holidays and graduations when they’d see other kids celebrating with their fathers. I knew because I’d been there.
Still, I couldn’t feel sorry for myself. I thought of my mother, who stayed cheerful and focused through all of her hardships as a widow. I remembered one Christmas when money was tight, she decorated the whole house with holiday wrapping paper. Everywhere we looked, the walls announced “Merry Christmas!”
My brothers, Joe and Johnny, and I got such a kick out of it, we all burst out laughing. In the darkest times, she kept things festive.
I was born on Christmas Eve 1927—not long before the Great Depression struck. Growing up, I loved our tight-knit Bronx neighborhood, and our house on Tenbroeck Avenue. Mine was the little room, its window over the front door.
I would wake in the morning to the clipclop of horses pulling milk and bread wagons. A box was in permanent residence on the front steps to hold the milk bottles. In the winter, I used to gauge the temperature by checking to see if the cream at the top of the bottles had frozen, forcing the cardboard lids to rise.
The Depression didn’t really hit our family until I was in the third or fourth grade. My father had come to the United States from Ireland when he was 21 years old. He was 42 and my mother turning 40 when they married. By then he was the owner of a successful Irish pub. But as the Depression deepened, his business suffered.
It was before the days of credit cards, and people charged their drinks and dinners. I noticed that times were getting tougher when Mother had to cancel our newspaper delivery. As the money situation worsened, Daddy fell behind in his payments to his suppliers.
He was scheduled to go into court one Monday in 1939. A judgment had been issued against him for an overdue bill. My mother begged him to call the creditor and ask for more time. He answered, “Nora, a gentleman always pays his bills.”
The Saturday before he was scheduled to appear in court, I was walking home from the seven o’clock Mass when I turned the corner on Tenbroeck Avenue and saw a police car outside our house. My father had died in his sleep. He was 54.
My mother was a bright, resourceful woman. She adored her children, and believed in all of us. From the time I first showed an interest in writing, as a child, she’d have me recite my first efforts—poems, mainly—to anyone who’d listen. Long before I believed it myself, she was sure I’d grow up to be a successful writer.
She would do anything to take care of her children, and provide a good life for all of us after my father died. She tried to get a job, but was sent home by the employment agencies. “We can’t find work for college graduates,” they told her. “You haven’t held a job in fourteen years. Go home and save your carfare.”
That’s when she put on her thinking cap. The solution would be to rent rooms. I gave up my little room, and we all moved downstairs. Mother reasoned that by renting the two big bedrooms for five dollars a week, we’d make enough to cover the interest on the mortgage and taxes on the house.
My brother Joe turned 13 the week our father died. He took a newspaper route. Mother began babysitting, and so did I.
Only six months after Daddy died, tragedy struck our family again. Joe—a stellar student and athlete—cut his heel on the jagged edge of the metal stripping on a door. The infection traveled through his system, and within a week he was in the hospital in critical condition with osteomyelitis.
Mother was told that an operation to remove his leg was necessary to save his life. Newly widowed, she made the stunning decision not to operate.
It was Christmas Eve, my twelfth birthday. The doctors held no hope for Joe’s recovery. Mother and Johnny and I carried all his presents to the hospital. His main gift was a hockey stick. “You’ll use it next year,” she promised him.
Joe needed a lot of blood transfusions, and they literally poured in. Neighbors, relatives, people who only vaguely knew Joe made the trek to New York Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia to give blood.
That Christmas Eve, 20-year-old Warren Clark, who had just returned from college, rushed to the hospital when he heard that his friend was sick. The Clarks lived around the corner from us, and Warren’s little brother, Ken, was my brother Johnny’s best friend.
Warren drove us home that day, and seeing that our Christmas tree was still leaning against the wall in the foyer, offered to put it up for us. “I’m no St. Joseph,” he apologized as he hacked at the trunk, “but maybe I can get it in the stand.” He was helpful, and handsome, and he had a great sense of humor. I sat cross-legged on the floor, sorting lights and ornaments and stealing glances at him.
The doctors told Mother there was a new drug called sulfa that was being used successfully in Europe. She gave them permission to try it with Joe. The following June, when he accepted the General Excellence medal at school, there was not even a trace of the limp that doctors had warned might never go away.
Joe turned 18, graduated from high school in 1944 and promptly enlisted in the Navy. Morning prayers at my school during the war often began with the announcement, “We will pray for the repose of the soul Anita’s brother, John..of Mother St. Margaret’s nephew, Danny...” And then it was my turn: “We will pray for the repose of the soul of Mary Higgins’s brother, Joseph.”
Mother could have claimed Joe as her sole support and kept him out of the service. Instead, she let him enlist. Six months later, she took the only long trip of her life, a plane ride to California to be at Joe’s deathbed in the Long Beach Naval Hospital. In training school, he had contracted spinal meningitis.
To the people who offered words of sympathy, she said, “It is God’s will. I couldn’t let Joseph go when he was sick the other time, but now God wants him even more than I do.” Mother’s faith was very deep, and she always believed that if something terrible happened that she didn’t understand, there was a reason. That was how she looked at the misfortunes in her life, and how she was consoled.
We three siblings had been so close. Joe’s death multiplied a thousand times the sense of loss I’d felt since that morning when Daddy died. In June, when I graduated from the Villa, Mother threw a party where she allowed no hint of sadness. It was my day, and nothing was going to spoil it.
I decided to go to secretarial school. I wanted to grow up. I wanted to earn money and get a job. I looked forward to having a family. I saw Warren Clark every week in church. He attended with his mother and two brothers. I made it my business to greet Mrs. Clark after Mass. One Sunday she asked my brother, “Didn’t I hear that your sister is engaged to be married?” John said no.
“Who’d marry your sister?” Warren asked Johnny, laughing.
Turned out, just a few years later, Warren Clark would. I had known that for a long while. I’d never been more certain of anything in my life. By then, I was happily working as a stewardess for Pan Am, traveling the world. But I was ready to settle down with Warren, ready to enter the next chapter of my life. Marriage. A family. And learning how to become a professional writer.
Warren and I were married the day after Christmas. The rain was coming down in sheets and I was 22 minutes late. Warr’s first words to me at the foot of the altar were, “What kept you?”
For the next 14 years and nine months, we lived happily ever after. We took to marriage as ducks to water. We loved each other, we were best friends and we made each other laugh. He was a very special man. One of his friends put it best: “Mary, he’d light up a room when he came into it.”
We moved into our own apartment in Manhattan, and started our family. As it grew, we moved to a house in the suburbs.
Labor Day 1959 dawned picture perfect. In every backyard in our little town, families were barbecuing. Our neighbor had decided to pull down a dead tree. He was having a hard time, and Warren and some other men on the block offered to give him a hand. “One, two, three, heave!” It was a difficult job.
The next day Warr had chest pains. He insisted it was just a pulled muscle, but two weeks later, he finally went to the doctor. Tests followed. He was told that the arteries leading to his heart were almost totally clogged. His pains were caused by severe and advanced angina. I stopped at church and prayed. “Please, let him live.” The answer I heard was, Come, take up your cross and follow Me.
Whatever time we’d have left, we’d make it great. He had three heart attacks in the next five years, but no one loved life more than he did. When that final attack took Warren from us, when he was no longer there to light up the room, a part of my being went dark.
The night of the funeral, exhausted, I got out of the tall chair and went upstairs to bed. The room that was now only mine felt empty and quiet. I lay there for a long time, then finally dozed off.
Around one in the morning, my bedroom door opened. Five-year-old Patty came in, dragging her security blanket. “Can I sleep with you?” she asked. I scooped her up, and we fell asleep together. Yes, this was the rest of my life. But I was determined to be the best mother I could be, and to share my own mother’s belief in me. For myself, and for my children, I would become a successful writer.
On this Christmas Eve, hard as it is for me to believe, I will be celebrating my eightieth birthday. As I approach it, I think back to that Christmas 43 years ago when I was so very sad.
That night, if I had had a glimpse into the future, in my wildest imagination I could never have guessed how much happiness God had in store for me—the children, grown up, successful and happy in their chosen fields, six wonderful grandchildren, the tremendous success I have enjoyed as a writer.
I had always missed the joy and companionship of marriage, and that too was given back to me. Eleven years ago I was blessed to meet and marry my second ‘spouse extraordinaire,’ John Conheeney. Now, between us we have nine children and 16 grandchildren.
A definition of happiness is “something to have, someone to love and something to hope for.” All my life, in good times and bad, these essentials of happiness have been granted to me in abundance, and for that I am deeply grateful.
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In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader