Kitchen Table Chat: An Interview with Pat Donelan

(from left to right) Maryellen (my mom and Pat's sister-in-law), Pat, with my daughters Ellen and Julia

When I reflect on the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” I am reminded of the many people who shaped me into the woman I am today.  Besides my parents, one of the most significant people in my life over the past 42 years has been my Aunt Pat.  Mary Patricia Kulasa was a Polish girl from Akron, Ohio, who married my mother’s brother in 1961, nine years before I was born.  Since then, she’s been a bright light at the center of our family. 

Pat is classy, graceful, strong and quick to share a story.  Over her 75 years, she has survived the sudden death of her husband, single motherhood, two hip replacements, and brain surgery.   In her usual self-deprecating way, she only agreed to this interview if I promised “not to make her sound like Mother Teresa because [she] still use a few swear words now and then.”

I hope you enjoy the story of this week’s inspiring mom, Pat Donelan.

The Little Girl from Akron  MaryPat” was raised in Akron, thirty-five miles south of Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940s and ‘50s.  She’s the daughter of a Polish electrician who emigrated from Warsaw to America at age four and a fourth-generation American stay-at-home mom who was raised on a small farm in western Ohio.  “I was the only child, but mom always had homemade cookies and my dad was available for a game of catch or to help me ride a bike,” Pat remembers.

Finding kids to play with was easy.  “The neighborhood I grew up in was something that you read about today:  playing outside until the porch lights went on, the neighborhood parents knowing everything you did.  I remember when I got my first bicycle and was under strict orders not to ride on a busy street in the neighborhood, which I proceeded to do as soon as I was out of sight.  In less than 15 minutes, a neighbor saw me, called my mom to comment on my new bike and mentioned seeing me riding on the forbidden street.  Guess who was grounded for a couple of weeks!”

Pat Donelan

Growing up near the city, Pat enjoyed going to the theatre and spending time with her three unmarried aunts.  “I had the best of both worlds,” Pat recalls.  Her life in the city consisted of “fashion show lunches at the local department store tearoom and Cleveland Indian baseball games where we sat in the press box and I became an autograph hound.”  As soon as school ended, “my mom and I would get on the train and spend summer with her parents on the farm where I fed the animals, gathered eggs, ‘helped’ with the canning, learned to make soap and embroider.”

With her dad’s family’s Polish gatherings, there was always a lot of good food and plenty of older cousins to spoil and tease her.  As Pat remembers, “Soup was not a meal—just a beginning for the feast to follow!”  For those of us who know her, and have eaten at her well-laden table numerous times, that makes perfect sense.  With regards to food and entertaining, before there was Martha Stewart, there was Aunt Pat.

Pat’s father died suddenly when she was thirteen years old.  She was one of twelve graduating that year from the town’s parochial school.  Pat remembers how difficult it was losing her father and what a “culture shock” it was entering public high school.  “My mom encouraged me to bring friends home, no need to ask twice for many of them who still remember, and I managed to survive four years.  By the time I was a senior, I made Student Council, National Honor Society and class secretary—things that are important to a teenager.”

Pat as a flight attendant

Come Fly with Me  In the 1950s, career choices for women were limited to teacher, nurse, or secretary, which Pat tried for a while.  “I really wanted to be a pilot from the time I was in 3rd grade.  We were studying aviation, and my uncle, who was a pilot in the Air Force, came in his uniform to talk to the class.  He made flying seem so exciting; we were all in awe.  Becoming a flight attendant was the next best alternative.”

Pat worked as a flight attendant for a little less than a year.  She rented an apartment with two friends in Boston, explored new cities, and experienced being broke before payday with no hope of borrowing money from anyone.  However, Pat muses, “it began to lose its glamour one morning at the hotel in Chicago when the phone rang:  ‘Good morning, this is your wake up call.  It’s 4:30 and 14 degrees below zero.  Enjoy your day.’  Right!  And I was on my way to Buffalo where it was snowing.  The day ended at 2:00 the next morning when we were the last flight into snowy Boston, and the only food that day was hot chocolate and whatever we could scoff from the trays that the passengers didn’t want.  No meals were provided for the flight attendants.”

Pat and John Donelan's Wedding Day

She met her husband, John Donelan, shortly after she moved to Boston.  His roommate was dating her roommate.  “John was teaching at Newman [Preparatory School] and was correcting papers when we came in, no more interested in ‘another flight attendant’ than I was in him, but he did invite me out that evening.  I was in the throes of a miserable cold and had planned the next the next chapter in my life:  to transfer to an international airline after a year so I could live in Europe.  He had just returned from the seminary in Europe and was focusing on his teaching job.  In other words, the best laid plans.  That was 1960 and we were married the next year.”

Like a Bad Dream  Pat and John eventually moved to Cape Cod, spent the next sixteen years together, working, running a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street in Centerville, and raising their son, John Paul.  In 1978, at the age of 42, Pat’s husband John passed away, leaving her a single mom to her seven-year old son.  “When John died, it first seemed like a bad dream, and everything would be fine and normal when I woke up.  When that didn’t happen, I just became angry—with him and with God because there was no one else to blame.  Then the normal grief process took over when there was time.  The house was under agreement, so I had six weeks to find my current house and move, my mom was staying with me because she had fallen and broken both her legs, and we had the blizzard of ’78.  So, for a while, it was a matter of which crisis came first.”

A few months later, Pat’s friend gave birth to a daughter with Down’s Syndrome and at Christmas, another friend, who’d had a mastectomy, wrote that her husband left her and their five children to marry his secretary.  “It dawned on me that I wouldn’t trade places with either of them, and I guess I just learned to live with the hand I’d been dealt.  My mom, unknowingly, was a role model from the time my dad died.”

Laughter is the Best Medicine  When you ask Pat how she healed from such a painful time and moved forward with her own life, she insists that she was buoyed by friends wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and family who would just show up at her doorstep.  “I still laugh about the time when I came back from Logan airport (having a pity party for myself on the way home) to find cousins Carol and Peter drinking beer in lawn chairs in my front yard with bikes parked nearby—or Clare Cuddy in clown costume playing the fiddle under the kitchen window on St. Patrick’s Day, with croissants from a Quincy Market bakery.  It didn’t take long for the neighbors not to feel sorry for the young widow who’d moved in!”

Pat's husband John, with John Paul

Muddling  What advice does Pat have for single parents who find themselves in similar circumstances?   “Muddle.  Seriously, the best advice I received was from our pediatrician who told me that kids take cues from the adults in their lives.  He told me to keep things as normal as I could including meals, and to do something nice for myself every day—whether it was taking a bubble bath, going for a walk or even making snow angels and looking at the clouds.”  She also points out that going back to work opened a new world for her.  “I started as a part-time receptionist for a local bank and eventually became a mortgage originator; I took courses, always at night, (which meant waking a sleeping boy to take the babysitter home), and made new friends.”

With regards to parenting, she missed having John to serve as a sounding board for her decisions.  However, Pat is quick to point out: “when things turn out right, you get twice the reward.”  Her friends Ag and Fred, parents whom she greatly admired, told her to say “yes” as often as she could, so when she said “no” it carried more weight.  “I said ‘no’ to hockey, a 20 mile drive to an early morning practice, and ‘no’ to football, but a reluctant ‘yes’ to a paper route.  I drove on collection evenings when it got dark early and on Sundays when the papers were huge.  On the plus side, it was uninterrupted chat time and a good excuse to buy donuts.”

I hope John [her son] knows I was always available, but had my own friends so I wasn’t smothering him.”  Like her own mother, Pat invited John’s friends over to her house, so she knew who they were.  She never did enjoy much sleep on Friday nights.

John, Pat’s son, most admires his mother’s resilience.  “She’s one of my very few heroes. ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,‘ said Nietzsche.  And that’s how mom has been since I was old enough to pay attention: able to zero in on the why with an effortlessness that continually amazes people.  She has a back yard full of English ivy that has become one of many running family jokes over the years, but she reminds me of it: no matter what you throw at it, the ivy keeps thriving.”

Remember Me, God?  I asked Pat what role faith has played in helping her survive two hip replacement surgeries and brain surgery for a benign tumor discovered during a retinal scan.  “Faith isn’t something that’s easy to define.  I’m a firm believer that if God gets you to it, He’ll get you through it, but I don’t believe He wears a wristwatch, so it’s not always the way or at the time we plan it.  I do keep in touch with Him daily; so when a crisis arises and I need help, I don’t have to say, ‘Remember me?’

“After my second hip replacement (a week after my first), I kept thinking of the young girl I’d seen—she was on crutches with severely deformed legs and no hope of ever walking normally; and the woman who shared my hospital room after my brain surgery who’d had an aneurysm—she could ever return to teaching.  In other words, someone always has more problems than you do, so count your blessings.”

Cioppino over Sterno, anyone?  One of my favorite memories of Aunt Pat was in 1991 during Hurricane Bob.  Winds were howling, trees were down, power was out, and Pat digs through the back of her bottomless freezer and comes out with mussels, clams, scallops…everything you need for Cioppino over Sterno!  I was incredulous…it was delicious.  That’s one of Pat’s great talents: making even the most absurd circumstances fun.

Pat and her son John, with my son Ryan

My cousin John recalls, “When Hurricane Bob roared over the Cape and I was stranded at her house with my best friend and two cousins (including this blog’s author); we had no power for almost over a week, no hot water, trees across the streets, and nature bombing us back to Colonial times. Most households in the area were stuck eating instant soup or mac and cheese but mom followed her usual storm-preparedness drill: after a rummage around her basement, kitchen and garage to assess supplies she quickly had drinks made, Jimmy Buffet playing and five-star cuisine that just seemed to keep manufacturing itself from the kitchen. We ate like libertines while Bob eventually howled himself out–largely ignored.  Twenty-two years later, just last month, I was stuck at my best friend’s house during the blizzard and we were laughing with his own kids about ‘Grandma Pat’s hurricane feast.'”

Stories of Pat’s entertaining escapades are legendary.  The very first Thanksgiving she cooked for her new husband’s family was disastrous.  “The oven door on which the turkey was resting broke under the weight, the turkey went sliding across the kitchen floor, I screamed “s*$#!”—no juices for gravy and I ruined a new pair of suede heels.  The dog lapped it up, the baby was screaming, and Uncle Frank was strumming his guitar and singing, ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble, it’s Thanksgiving Day!’”

Pat’s always been a fantastic improviser.  “A guest chastised me once for not serving red wine with roast beef, so I did what any gracious hostess would do: went to the kitchen and poured some white wine into a carafe and added enough red food coloring until it was just the right shade.  Julia Child, I think, said it right: ‘whatever happens in the kitchen, stays in the kitchen’”.  At my request, Pat has shared some of our favorite family recipes below, including the Cioppino!

Baked Brie
Marinated Shrimp (or mussels)
Aran Blathai (Irish Soda Bread)
Lemon Tea Bread
Steamed Pudding
Macaroni and Cheese
Sweet and Sour Pot Roast
Potato Casserole

“I Did It My Way”  When asked what her theme song would be, Pat didn’t hesitate: Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way.”  One of the things I most admire about Pat is that she doesn’t wallow in life’s disappointments—she finds the fun in life.  She’s also built a vibrant social life for herself. The “Stitch ‘n’ Bitch” group she joined eventually evolved into the “Macaroni and Cheese” friends who seek out and sample different recipes for mac ‘n’ cheese.  She volunteers at the Centerville Historical Museum, as a wedding coordinator at church, and an usher at the Cape Cod Symphony (“it’s a free ticket to great concerts”).

Since retiring from her job as a mortgage originator, Pat’s been working part-time for a local car dealership.  “In between I try to be a good person for Pepin, my 13 year-old puppy, and keep in touch with the friends I’ve collected from school and parts of my life along the way.”

I will always be grateful to Pat for teaching me about faith and grace under pressure.  Does her story remind you of someone you know?  Sometimes, we needn’t look far for our role models—they are often seated right around the kitchen table.


Best-selling Author Lee Woodruff to speak at the DCA on Tuesday, September 11

Lee Woodruff

On Tuesday, September 11 at 10:00 am, Lee Woodruff, the wife of ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff, who was critically wounded while on assignment in Iraq, will be at the Darien Community Association to discuss her new novel Those We Love Most.

On her website, Ms. Woodruff describes her novel as a story of “generations in a family, the seasons of a marriage, and whether or not a relationship can survive secrets.”  To read more about Ms. Woodruff’s background on the Darien Patch, click here.

Co-sponsored by Barrett Bookstore and the Darien Community Association (274 Middlesex Road), tickets are available from the DCA and Barrett Bookstore. DCA members $5.00; General Admission $10.00.  Lee Woodruff will sign copies of Those We Love Most after her presentation.

For further information please call Barrett Bookstore on (203) 655-2712 or the DCA on (203) 655-9050.  Join me there on Tuesday!