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Sunday 13 June 2004

The Leahys

When I was a kid, my grandma (on my mom's side) had three first cousins, Tom & Catherine and Cyrill. They were all siblings and grew up in San Francisco, which made them cool. They were from the Sunset District, iirc, and Catherine used to steal her mom's ironing board and take it surfing. They were irish. thier mother was the church organist. I don't know much about their dad. Catherine told me that he used to sing while washing the dishes when her mother had organ rehersal once a week. For Catherine's birthday and/or Christmas, her parents would pay for her to attend classes at a school for young women on various academic subjects. She and Tom loved learning. Cyrill was more adventerous.

Tom went off the seminary and then Catherine went off to the convent and finally Cyrill also went off to the seminary. I don't know where Tom and Cyrill went, but Catherine went to St. Mary's in Los Angeles. She spent ten years teaching grade school, which must have drove her nuts. She joined the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Tom became a Jesuit.


Cyrill eventually left the seminary without becoming a priest and moved back to San Francisco, where he was a patron of the arts and rode his motorcycle and drank like the irishman he was. He died when I was pretty young, so I don't that much about him. He and his roomate were great friends and went everywhere together and rode their motorcycles together. One time Herb Cain saw them on their bikes in tuxes on the way to the symphony and mentioned it in his column. In the 60's, my mom, my grandma and Tom & Catherine and Cyrill went to Europe a couple of times. There's pictures of them all standing in front of the Eiffel tower. Eventually, late in life, Cyrill met Bobby and married her.


Tom went to the ivy league where he got advanced degrees in semetic languages. He could speak a bunch of languages, including French, which was useful on their european trips. He may have been stationed in europe at the time, which could have promted these trips. One time, he tried to order dessert and a fish came instead. when the group went to the vatican, he went off to talk to a priest there for a while (in italian or latin) and returned to say that they had an audience with the Pope. My mom was very excited, but it turned out to be one of those thigns where throngs of people stand out in the square and the pope comes out on his balcony and gives a short speech and a blessing.

Tom was one of the translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls and was at the Berkeley Theological Institute for many years. He was published in the Jerome Bible companion. Apparently, he was quite the procrastinator, or perhaps he was just very thorough in his un-speedy research. He had an acient Hebrew typewriter. His work put him in many inter-faith efforts. As a Berkeley-ite, he volunteered feeding hungry people in People's Park. One time, he was serving rolls and a guy asked him if they had unbleached flour. His friends joked that in Berkeley beggars could be choosers.

He was an avid bicyclist. Folks were surprised when he had to get a quadruple bypass surgery, since he exercized so much. He came out ok, though. I remember going to the huge dinner in celebration of 40 years as a priest. It was at an East Bay Restuarant called His Lordships. Tom and Catherine were very close and were often mentioned together. they gave the best Christmas presents. Always something fascinating and educational. They were both highly esteemed in the family for being so brilliant.


Catherine was a biologist who specialized in parasites. She invented something called the Leahy Petri Plate Method and discovered the existance of parasites in ticks. She's done work on six continents in more than 40 countries. In the 60's, she was sent to Prague. She couldn't wear the habit (somethign she wasn't so keen on anyway) or tell anyone that she was a nun. She was always oppositional to authority and quickly joined the Catholic Underground. She had her first massive stroke there. Her order told her that she could and should come home, but she refused, saying she didn't want to abandon her graduate students. Her research also took her to Africa. When she came to visit me in Oakland, I think for graduation, I took her and my family to an Ethiopian Restaurant. She was confused by this idea. The food in Ethiopia was so boring when she was there!

She used to travel with her ticks. When she came to visit my grandma in Cupertino (California), she kept her vials of ticks in her bed, where they would keep warm. Apparently, she would also feed them. One time, when I was visitting her in LA, some of her former students were reminiscing about being asked to volunteer to let ticks bite them, to feed the ticks. One of the nuns was explaining that it takes a special type of community before you can get people to volunteer to feed ticks.

She was staunchly leftist, a Catholic Democrat in the old tradition. Unfortunately, my grandma's branch of the family tree defected to the Republican Party. One time Catherine scandalized my grandma by comparing three prominent Democrats to the Blessed Trinity. I can't remember who was involved, except that Jesse Jackson was the Holy Spirit. During the Reagan administration, US-backed death squads were running amok in Central and South America. US backed forces murdered six nuns. Hundreds of religious people went to the local federal building to protest. Catherine was arrested while praying and singing, blocking the entrance to the building. She brought her plastic crowd control handcuffs with her to the family holiday dinner and spoke impassionedly about how beautiful it was to stand in solidarity with so many people and to stand against injustice. I remember examining the handcuffs, inspired by her story and her civil disobediance.

She was adventerous and would try anything. I remember at one family dinner, probably Easter, we were talking about edible flowers, so she took one of the roses from the centerpiece and put the petals on her salad. My mom was always applying chemicals to the roses in her battle with aphids. I got my mom's attention, asking loudly down the table, "Mom, are the roses sprayed? Catherine's eating them!" Years later, my mom would still giggle madly, remembering my grandmother's shocked expression. I wonder if Catherine really shocked my grandma as much as I remember her doing?

My mom wanted me to grow up just like Tom and Catherine, but not too much like Catherine and maybe without the becoming a nun part. The leftism, she was deinfitely not ok with. the academic achievement and intellectualism, she encouraged as much as she could. My mom used to use Catherine as a warning to be careful. Catherine in her travels picked up many weird parasites, including a dissentary which she was sick with for years. I should be careful where I went, or I too could catch such a thing. A few years ago, while discussing possibilities of third world travel, I mentioned these risks to Christi and then it struck me that Catherine was the happiest person that I knew and if she had been sick, she certainly wasn't emotionally suffering. So I endeavored to be less cautious than I was raised to be.

Catherine told my dad that the reason she retired from being a researcher was the politics involved in getting funding. She was posted in a convent in Oakland and her job was to visit sick people in hospitals. She made many friends this way. Those nuns there were all super-busy. Nobody had time to cook. They used to go eat at the happy hour in a local bar.

And then...

Around the time that my grandma died, about 11 years ago, Tom began to have problems with his sort term memory. He was moved from Berkeley to the Seminary in Los Gatos, which also had care for elderly priests. His health slowly but steadily declined. I remember visitting him there several times. Catherine was sick with worry about him. Everytime his health got worse, hers did too. She had minor strokes when he lost a function or became more ill. Finally, she needed more help than she could get at the Oakland convent and was sent to Los Angeles. She was not pleased about this. She came up to visit as often as she could. She couldn't travel alone, so her friend John would take her. Finally, she had to travel with a nurse, so a nurse would come with her. The nurse was an ex-army nurse who had gotten Gulf War Syndrome. Catherine had twice as much energy as she did and would occasionally go running off without her.

As Tom got more ill, so did Catherine. I remember after his funeral at Santa Clara University, family members glumly worrying about whether she would last much longer without him. thankfully, she was relieved of worry and her health improved a lot. However, she was still very old. Eventually, when her superiors told her she could make a visit to the Bay Area, she would get so excited that she would have warning signs of strokes, so they quit letting her travel. I went down to see her in Los Angeles many times. Several of those times, I stayed at the convent. They lock the doors early in the convent and there's not so much to do. Catherine went to sleep around 6:00 or 7:00 (maybe 8:00) then. I remember when I had just gotten back from Europe in 2001, Christi and I went to see her. I went to a bookstore in Santa Monica and picked a book on Joan of Arc, who I had decided to study and a copy of Teach Yourself Esperanto. So I started my first studies of Esperanto.

Catherine was surrounded by friends at the LA Convent. Her former teachers, classmates and students were around her. I was struck by how similar it was to dorm life and imagined what it would be like to be 80 and in a dorm with all the people who lived in my dorm when I was 18. Most of the nuns were eccentric in their own way. Meal conversations there were fascinating and entertaining. Catherine was slowly losing her sight due to glacoma and strokes. She finally only had about 10% of her field of vison left. The other nuns there took turns reading to her. She had them reading philosophy by Ken Wilbur, teaching by the Dali Lama, the meditations of Eckhardt Tolle. They laughed about the difficulty of the books she wanted them to read. One time, I was standing in her room and one of her neighbors hear us talking. "Who is the Dali Lama?" she asked. Catherine struggled a minute to come up with a succint reply to convey his holiness and greatness. "He's a saint!" she exclaimed.

Even though she couldn't see well, she still wanted to go look at art. I took her to the Getty Museum in her first outing with a white cane. She couldn't see at all on her left hand side, but had some vision on her right. And she was having a heck of a time with the cane. Apparently, it takes a lot of skill to use one. finally, she got frustrated and was just carrying it, but she couldn't see it was sticking out on one side and she smacked a wall and maybe a person with it. Fortunately, she also couldn't see folks staring at her misuse of it. She finally gave up on the cane, which was too bad, as one of her favorite things to do then was walk and she needed help to go at a fast pace, which she liked to do. So when Christi and I would come see her, Christi would take one of her hands and I would take the other, and we would walk at a quick pace around the convent grounds.

I went to see her before I went to school. I went by myself that time. Christi didn't want to go. I almost never went alone. I was sitting with her and reading to her about bunker busters from the Journal of the Atomic Scientist and we were complaing about George Bush and I said something about warfare and a short rant about capitalism. Catherine smiled a big smile and said, "I can't tell you how much it warms my heart to hear you talk like that!"

The last time I saw her, she couldn't really talk and kept dozing off. But when I said "goodbye, Catherine." and toched her arm I could tell from her smile that she knew it was me. She's been an inspiration to me since I was a child. she was a role model and a hero. She was the happiest person I knew. Even in her physical decline, she found serentiy. I want to be just like her. She was my last female relative. She told me last August that she talked to our dead family members. She knew they were in heaven and they were happy. They were waiting for her, but she liked being alive and wanted to do it for as long as she could. I know she died happy and I know she's whever everybody else is now. I'll miss her so much

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