04/02/2015 05:58 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2015

A Gift to Us

Catherine Nagle

She woke up early in the morning before the dawn of light and started cooking a large pot of oatmeal. As she cooked, she put a fresh stick of butter on the table to soften for spreading on our toast. In between warming a bottle of milk for the baby, she managed to put on a pot of coffee. She'd sip it while checking our school bags for sharpened pencils, copybooks, milk money and nickels for recess. She gently held her baby to her chest with one arm while helping the younger ones button their shirts, or tie their shoes, or pull up their pants after they left the bathroom. She walked us to the front door with the baby still in her arms and toddlers hanging on the hem of her house dress. In addition to checking the outside weather, she reminded us to put on a sweater or jacket and waved goodbye to us with a smile of delight at our presence.

She began washing the breakfast dishes and put clothing in the washing machine that usually ran all hours, until we came home at lunchtime. We always had sandwiches that were ready made with fresh bread, ham and cheese, and a tall glass of milk. We had a piece of fruit to eat on the way back to school. We were excited to get home after the school day to have a snack of homemade chocolate cake and play outside or watch cartoons. We didn't have a lot of chores after school, since she made sure that our playing came first.

She expressed joy at watching us children laugh and play while she prepared dinner. We could always depend on fresh meat and vegetables as well as chicken, turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn or green beans. We were never forced to eat something that we didn't like. She laughed at our silly stories at the dinner table while spoon-feeding one of the toddlers in a high chair, or heating up some warm milk for the hungry, crying baby. Our chores were light and enriching; helping to spoon feed the youngest toddlers, or watching over them in the playpen while she did the dinner dishes and cleaned up the messes we left behind.

She taught us morals and the value of love, compassion, laughter and honesty, with kindness. A day never went by that didn't include her conversations with God that she'd share with us. She's done this her whole life, ever since the first day she got married at 16, then had a child every year thereafter.

She never shouted, used profanity, wore makeup, or owned any clothing other than house dresses. We rarely heard her complain; rather, she voiced only her joy and satisfaction over preparing an abundant meal, or enjoying the fragrance of freshly-laundered clothes and her sparkling, clean house.

She hardly asked for outside help, even from my father. Her greatest challenge in life was handling the demands of a domineering husband, dealing with her misgivings about his old-school philosophy. Yet, she somehow understood him and that allowed her to feel more compassion towards him. She overcame all odds by focusing on the health and joys of the family through her simple meekness and love. She put everyone's needs before her own, as though they were treasures that counted her blessings to serve.

She was certainly different from all the rest, having given over her life to the sacred responsibility of caring for 17 children she nurtured practically on her own. She was able to reach each of us on our own level. With little education, she somehow found her internal teacher, the one who showed her the way through via faith, hope and love.

Her health started to fail when her youngest child was 6. Her legs weakened, causing her pain, and she developed partial blindness from diabetes. I can still hear her whispered prayers and can see her kneeling before the Crucifix, asking for 10 more years of good health so she could continue taking care of her children. Her passion for us children was her greatest strength, and through her faith, her health miraculously returned and remained until she met God face-to-face 10 years later.

My mother's struggles that she overcame gave me confidence during the darkest night of my soul, when I'd come to see my child as the gift she was, which helped me to cultivate greater love and compassion myself, and leave all the rest in His hands, just as my mother had done before me. She left her imprint on my soul to follow.

In October 1958, when she gave birth to her eighteenth child, Mom was acknowledged in all the Philadelphia newspapers as the youngest mother to have given birth to that many children in Philadelphia.

About Catherine Nagle: Catherine grew up in Philadelphia with 16 brothers and sisters, reared by loving, old school Italian parents. Catherine's artist father's
works graced locations from churches to public buildings; her mother was a full-time homemaker. A professional hairdresser, Catherine worked in various salons while studying the Bible and pursuing spiritual growth through courses, seminars, lectures and inspirational books, including A Course in Miracles and the works of Marianne Williamson among many others. The mother of two children and a grandmother, Catherine lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and son. She is the Author of Imprinted Wisdom.