Even as a young girl, I knew that my mother’s beeper signaled something incredibly important. She wore the beeper when it was her turn to be one of the pediatricians on call for the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. My sister, brother, and I might be watching The Muppet Show while my mom made her wonderful spaghetti sauce, the enticing smell filling the house. She liked to sing as she cooked, adding a cheery background to dinnertime. Suddenly the shrill alarm of the beeper would shatter the pleasant calm.
Mom would turn the beeper off and call the hospital using the wall phone in the kitchen. She’d stretch the spiraled phone cord to move as far from us as possible and hear the person on the other end clearly. Even so, Dad would say, “Turn it down. Mom’s got a beep. She’s on the phone!” We went quiet in an instant. We knew it was serious business.
She would hang up and, many times, head out to the hospital. In my young mind I envisioned her rushing to the bedside of a sick child suffering a dire medical emergency. Dad would take over cooking, and we would go back to watching TV. Still, it would linger, the same thought every time: “Wow, my mom is important. She’s going to go save a life right now.” It was my earliest brush with how service to others translated to action. My mother was a healer, had chosen to be a doctor. People—children—counted on her. She took that obligation to heart.
She was my strongest influence and most powerful role model. Mom, the oldest of eight kids, had been struck with polio when she was ten years old. She survived, but the disease left her with a leg that was largely useless. She drag-limped it as she walked. Regardless, she refused to let it stop her or even slow her down. She exemplified the determination of pure will. At a point in history when few women even went to college, my mom went to medical school and became a pediatrician.
I’m sure there were days when she would have loved to let that call go, to ignore the beeper. Times when she was tired from a long day of seeing patients, checking homework, and reining in three kids. There must have been evenings when all she wanted was to sit down on the sofa, take a breath, and stare out the window. That is surely true, but I never once heard my mom complain. Not about the beeper, her work, or her leg. She had important things to do, and those things required sacrifices. She had made the choice to serve, and as far as she was concerned, there was no other option. You put your head down, and you got on with it.
That dedication was coupled with a keen mind. She has always been one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever known. She taught her children to constantly question the world around them. We were raised to always be respectful but never take anything at face value. She showed me that the only true limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves. Safe to say I would never have so tenaciously pursued my dream of being a fighter pilot had she not been such an example of possibility realized.
Her immense inner strength, quick mind, faith, and love of family were deep values she shared with my father. They were both compassionate, strong people of durable religious belief, faithful but forever intellectually curious.
My mom was short and huggable, with a beautiful smile. Dad was a sturdy man whom people knew they could lean on for support. He, too, had immense inner strength matched by a physical heartiness. He was built thick and strong, with a laborer’s beefy hands. He had brown curly, almost frizzy hair and an unruly beard and mustache that framed a quick and infectious smile. He loved a good practical joke. He once parked our station wagon down the street while we were asleep and replaced it in the garage with a look-alike toy car. He told my five-year-old brother, Matt, that the car had shrunk and tried to contain his laughter as Matt’s eyes grew wide. It was his lighter side, and his eyes often danced behind the Coke-bottle lenses of his glasses as he looked for an opportunity to have some fun at our expense.
He loved people and enjoyed life. He was also one of the most gregarious people you might ever meet. Visitors to our home would barely get their coats off before they had a beer in their hand and my father was coaxing a story out of them.
That didn’t mean he lacked a serious side. Like my mom, he was a person of service and faith. He was particularly passionate about knowledge—increasing his own and helping others learn. He taught English for forty years at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati. He carefully balanced the striking contradictions in his life, the rigorous pursuit of empirical wisdom and the leap of faith involved in his Catholic beliefs. He had once been a seminarian and an aspiring priest. Though he’d given up that path, it didn’t temper the flame of religious devotion that burned inside him. He embraced it with a New Testament joy and compassion. I never heard him proselytize, and he rarely talked about Catholic doctrine at all. He simply lived his faith. He studied his Bible and went to church—with the family in tow—every Sunday without fail and on holy days throughout the year.
It was no coincidence that the people who most showered me with love were also faithful churchgoers and devout believers. They embraced their religion in a deeply thoughtful way. It grounded me in my own. The role models for faith didn’t stop at my mother and father. My parents were friends with a couple named Ron and Kathy Eckerle. My mom mentioned to Ron that she was looking at day-care options. Ron told her, “Well, my mom is looking for work and she loves kids. She’s a housekeeper as well.”
That simple interaction was how I came to know one of the most influential people in my early life. As young as my brother, sister, and I were, we couldn’t pronounce “Eckerle,” so she became and always would be “Mrs. Eck.” She was my nanny when I was three and four and picked me up after classes once I started attending the local Montessori school. She showed me boundless patience and affection.
My early role models all gave me the space and guidance to learn, think, and come to grips with my own beliefs. I was never going to be a worshipper who blindly followed church doctrine or literal interpretations of the Bible. The support I had helped me question everything without ever losing my faith. Something is there, I’m sure of it. Sometimes the light burns bright, and sometimes it barely flickers. Mrs. Eck gave me one more example of living to the brightness.
It was my father, though, who most nurtured my spiritual beliefs. He created a living, breathing Catholicism that made faith seem accessible and relevant. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting in the front pew at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Covington, watching Dad read a passage from the scripture. He served as a reader, a layperson who read scriptures to the congregation prior to the sermon proper. He projected his deep, strong voice, reaching those at the very back of that cavernous cathedral.
We lead best when we lead by example, and my father showed me how faith translates into action. Every Good Friday, I would join him in quietly “climbing the steps at Mount Adams,” an honored tradition local to the Cincinnati area. We would stop at each step to silently recite a Hail Mary or Our Father. It would take an honest hour to reach the top step and then enter the church for more prayers. There was a joy in my father as we made that pilgrimage every year. It was solemn but uplifting. That, and so many occasions like it, taught me that faith could be a verb.
Both my parents instructed me, clearly, that I shouldn’t think of Catholicism as the “right way” or the “only way,” but that it was “our way.” They were accepting of other religions as different but equal, not lesser. It would open me to the world, and one of my best friends at Mercy Montessori was Jewish. Her family invited me to their Hanukkah ceremony, and I was excited to go. It was fascinating to me to watch a family just as devout as mine pray in Hebrew. That early framework would stick with me and open me to other cultures when I encountered them overseas as a Marine.
Of course, for a young, energetic girl, life is not all prayers and devotion. From a young age I loved to move. I relished the feel of my body responding to my commands. I wanted to climb trees and run like the wind. I was also competitive, and I welcomed the physical challenge of sports, especially against tough opponents. Seeing my mother struggle with her disability made me forever appreciate the fact that I had two good legs, and two good arms, that I could do without thinking things she could never hope to do. I was lucky to have good health and was going to use my body to its full advantage.
That made me an unapologetic tomboy. Fortunately, I lived in a town and grew up with parents who didn’t judge or force me to be something I wasn’t. I’m sure that Edgewood, Kentucky, had its share of small minds; every place does. But the people who mattered most to me were fine with me being exactly who I was—a budding athlete, an independent-minded competitor who gave no quarter on any field. My older sister, Janie, had a mean backstroke in the pool, wrote beautiful poetry and engaging, entertaining stories, and loved playing with Barbies. That wasn’t for me. Those activities didn’t speak to me the way they enchanted her. I enjoyed the swing of a bat, kicking a goal, or sledding at breakneck speeds down the steep hill of our long backyard. That’s how I became my brother Matt’s smaller shadow and his athletic protégée.
It never failed that Matt would be one of the captains for our school’s lunchtime football game. He and the other captain would face the rest of us, lined up along the brick wall of the building next to the practice field, hoping to be picked early rather than late (and certainly anything but last). When it was time for him to make his first pick, he would make a show of putting his finger on his chin and running his eyes along the line of possible candidates. We both knew it was a ruse. He would always pick me first, because we practiced together nearly every day.
“I’ll take Amy.”
The other captain would look shocked. “Okay, your loss.”
Little did he know. Matt was always the quarterback, and I was forever the wide receiver. He would drop back on the first play of the game, looking downfield. Nobody would cover me, assuming this spindly girl couldn’t possibly reel in a pass. Then Matt would launch a perfect spiral that I would catch with confidence, not even breaking stride as I ran unopposed into the end zone. By the end of the game I would be dragging double coverage, but the damage had been done. We won a lot. I played football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. “Playing with the boys” would set me up for success in the face of greater challenges later—most pointedly the military.
Even though it was a prosperous, intimate suburb, Edgewood had an old-fashioned, small-town feel. People there embraced traditional values. We waved our flags proudly. Edgewood, too, helped shape me. I learned that neighbors were people you helped when they needed it. The greater good mattered. Certainly, the intimacy of a small community can breed its fair share of gossip, but that closeness also fosters cohesion, a coming together. From the time I was old enough to run outside and play in our front yard, I knew all the neighbors up and down our block. Elderly Dr. Maloney lived across the street, and my parents would send Matt and me to check up on him from time to time. We would deliver meals or just sit and talk with him. The Schepers lived next door and were some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Once, the old woman who lived a few doors down walked over in the snow wearing only her nightgown. She knew Mom was a doctor. She had experienced some disorientation and actually fell at our doorstep. Mom immediately assessed the situation, called 911, and wrapped a blanket around her. She talked quietly to calm the flustered woman and us kids. Dad went to her house to get her family. This was what you did for neighbors.
Edgewood was a solid, middle-class place. Most people, if they weren’t retired, commuted to Cincinnati for their jobs or worked in the local hospital. There were small towns in Kentucky worse off, but drive from one to the other, and values weren’t any different.
The core values in my town ran deep and true. The seven thousand souls of 1980s Edgewood, Kentucky, tolerated differences and celebrated common bonds. Most were followers of one religion or another. All believed in fairness and decency. Edgewood citizens knew the Constitution and Bill of Rights and deeply valued both. It was all a part of their patriotism.
The town exhibited that love of country every year, in its own wonderfully quirky Fourth of July parade. It was like a million others held in small towns across the country, hokey and heartfelt. The parade was a chaotic collection of funky old cars dressed in comical banners advertising local businesses or politicians, school bands and Boy Scout troops marching in formation, and the uniquely American spirit pervading the day’s events. I marched in the parade at six and proudly waved my miniature flag so that everyone lining the parade route would get a good look.
Although the town was rich with patriotic enthusiasm, it was my dad’s thoughtful love of America that really taught me what citizenship was all about. It was intertwined with an innate fascination with learning and discovery. He would pick us three kids up from school each day and drive us to the library in Covington. There, we would do our homework or explore while he graded papers. It seemed the most natural, welcoming place. He taught us that the library was a civic institution to be valued, used, and supported.
Beyond books, Dad made history real for us. Matt and I would be enjoying a catch out back on a lazy summer afternoon when the back door would fly open and Dad would yell, “Pack a lunch. We’re going on a trip.” Off we went on a modest voyage of discovery, prying into yet another historic corner of America. We’d pile into the station wagon, the trusty workhorse with its faux-wood panels and much-used roof-mounted luggage rack, and head to whatever new location had captured my father’s imagination. It might be south-central Ohio, where we’d spend half a day touring the Great Serpent Mound, a grass-covered rolling burial site built by prehistoric Native Americans a thousand years before. Maybe it wasn’t Machu Picchu, but it was enough history for an interesting day trip. Dad’s radar was always up for any vestige of history, any new discovery that would expand his knowledge. We’d be driving through some town on our way to canoe the Little Miami River when he would whip the station wagon over to the curb.
“Look, a historical marker. Everyone out.” Something had happened on that site, and Dad wasn’t going to drive another ten feet without finding out what exactly it was. All of us would reluctantly pile out of the station wagon, read the marker for ourselves, and discuss it for the next twenty miles. Sometimes a minor Civil War battle had been fought there, or a political figure had been born in the town. My dad taught me that history was everywhere and the echoes of the past were worth listening to and learning from.
These were the lessons that formed my worldview. The borders of that perspective exploded in the summer of 1985, when I was ten. My family drove off for a five-week journey of exploration to the West Coast and back. All five of us planned the trip for months based on a wonderful concept: each person got to pick three destinations.
We studied the map, read guides to each state, and endlessly discussed the possibilities. Three favorites hardly seemed enough. My choices were based on my passions of the moment. Reading about California, my mother said, “You know, the best chocolate in the country is made by Ghirardelli in San Francisco.” The best chocolate in the country? How could I, a young and budding chocolate aficionado, not choose Ghirardelli?
My second choice was driven by love. I had been drawn to puppies and kittens as far back as I could remember. I loved watching wild animal documentaries on TV and was dying to see more exotic species in person. I thought I might want to be a veterinarian. So, it was no surprise to my family when I chose the San Diego Zoo—the largest zoo in the country at that time—as my second destination. I chose my third, the High Rockies, because it just sounded wild and untamed.
The trip took us through fourteen states on our way out west and back. We saw amazing sights: Wall Drug Store and the Corn Palace in South Dakota; the Badlands National Park; Fort Laramie in Wyoming; Mount Rushmore; and so many more. My father picked a stunningly scenic ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado, skirting a mountainside so steep you had to wonder how the tracks stayed in place. My brother’s pick was Alcatraz, a different experience altogether, and part of our long stay in the San Francisco Bay Area.
San Francisco had already impressed me with its postcard hills, unique architecture, and a drive down Lombard Street—“the crookedest street in the world”—when we headed off on our tour of Alcatraz. We returned four hours later to discover someone had broken into the station wagon. Crime was exceedingly rare in Edgewood, and the break-in seemed almost personal. The thief had rifled through all of our personal possessions, taking anything of monetary value (including my trusty Walkman radio). I was heartbroken. This too was a lesson. The diversity of America included the people. All types called this country home. That included the finest people on earth as far as I was concerned. Now I understood that any group had some bad as well. There were bound to be those in it only for themselves, working against the best interests of the group. I thought about that a lot on the way home. The entire trip was full of real-world lessons.
Perhaps the most powerful, though, was just how vast and varied America truly is. Before our vacation, I had the limited perspective any child has. Kentucky was Edgewood to me. So was America. Then we drove six thousand miles, and I saw the reality, the aweinspiring wonder of a magnificent country. I was amazed at the incredible gaps between populated areas. We often traveled five or six hours never once seeing a building or any sign of civilization. The only sign that there were other people anywhere were the FM stations we’d pick up, only to drop an hour or two later.
Thanks to my parents, I became used to learning organically. Education was a part of life and curiosity-driven exploration. Like my brother and sister before me, I attended Mercy Montessori grade school. The classroom experience was unique for every student, and each was allowed to learn at his or her own pace. The school fostered self-discovery and was engaging from the first class in the morning until Dad or Mrs. Eck picked me up in the afternoon. There were no report cards, but there were endless opportunities to learn, test your own boundaries, and grow. I loved it.
It was no small shock to graduate and move on to a Catholic middle school. Matt and Jane had been so far ahead of the kids in middle school that they had opted to skip those two years and go right into high school. I was offered the same opportunity, but that would have meant putting myself at a huge disadvantage competing in sports at the high school level. I would have been up against kids six years my senior. Given how much I loved sports, it just made sense to do my two years in middle school. It turned out to be a disappointing time. The teachers were nice but the classes weren’t challenging, and the structure of the school day was far more rigid and less adaptable than what I had known in grade school.
My education outside school, however, continued as it always had. My parents provided endless shining examples and teachable moments about what was most valuable in life. When I was twelve, my mother received the Marvin Rammelsberg Distinguished Service Award from the Greater Cincinnati Association for Counseling and Development. The presentation ceremony was held on a gorgeous late spring day, the rows of redbud trees in stunning full bloom at the Peterloon Estate in Cincinnati. I stood at the back of the handsome main room in Peterloon’s stately Georgian brick building, angling for a better view of the stage as my mom received her award. I was watching her give her short acceptance speech, when a woman approached me. She was about thirty, pretty, with a wide smile and long, light brown hair.
“You’re Dr. McGrath’s daughter, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You should know how special your mother is. She’s an amazing person, and you’re lucky to be her daughter.” She hesitated for a moment, a little choked up. “Your mother saved my life. And I’m not alone; she’s helped a lot of other people. She is an incredible doctor. I just wanted you to know that.”
“Thank you,” I said, a little stunned.
The woman walked away, and for about the millionth time I felt a deep pride in my mother, in what she did and who she was. I ached to be useful in that way, to help people, and do something important in the world. Soon enough, I would figure out exactly what that was.
Copyright © 2021 by Amy McGrath. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.