A Mindful Tribute to Aunt Frances Murphy

She saved my life. That's more than enough to deserve a tribute in her honour. I was a toddler at the time, slipped away from my charge in my parents' back garden, and somehow managed to walk or crawl to the edge of the nearby burn - a Scottish word for stream - and promptly fell in.

Frances noticed somehow, and, in a flash, jumped straight in and got me out.

That was just under sixty years ago.

The photograph to the left is from twenty years before that, around 1940. It shows Frances graduating from the University of Glasgow, aged around twenty-one. I'll come to that achievement in a minute.

Frances was born in 1919 into a family which was ultimately to comprise eleven children who grew to adulthood, plus one baby girl who died in infancy. Their parents were a coal miner and his wife, a gifted seamstress.

Despite one of her teachers' prejudices, based on a disparaging view of working-class families, Frances flourished academically. However just as she was about to go to university the family were devastated by the early death of their father, in his mid forties. Frances was eighteen years old, one of the oldest of the children, so her mother was now a single mother living on a miner's widow's pension, with seven children still at school. It was at the height of the Great Depression, with five years of war to follow shortly thereafter.

The family were Catholic, and Frances, stricken with grief, asked her mother "Why did God take away my father."

Her mother replied "It could have been worse. If it had been me who died you would all have been put into orphanages."

1936 was a grim year for working-class families.

Despite the massive barriers of poverty, prejudices, and now the loss of one of the parents, the family not only coped but thrived. Two other siblings, as well as Frances, went to university and obtained degrees, an astonishing achievement at that time for any family other than the wealthiest and best-connected. For a working-class family it was almost unheard-of, and many more of the siblings would have achieved the same level had it not been for the need to leave school to earn more money to keep the family afloat, and the prevalence of childhood illnesses that struck some of the children.

In the 1950s Frances was persuaded by a relative from the USA to emigrate there, with the blessing and encouragement of her mother. There she started on a remarkable career in teaching, initially working in the public school sector, then the private Montessori tradition, finally on the wishes of a group of parents, she set up and ran her own Montessori school in Indiana. This became wildly popular as the quality of the education became public knowledge.

On her frequent returns to Scotland for holidays, she would formally educate us, her manifold nephews and nieces, trying to get us to speak "proper" English, as well as how to read, write, and do sums, well before we went to school. It was only in "elocution" that she failed, as we were all too firmly ensconced in the vernacular of Lanarkshire. What she did do though, aided by the culture of our parents, was reinforce the importance of learning and deep-seated curiosity and love of life.

Some decades later she decided to retire, at the expected age of sixty, and returned to her homeland of Scotland. A few months later however, bored at having little to do, and in response to frequent pleas by the parents of her American pupils, she decided to return to the USA and her leadership role at the school. She stayed in that role for thirty-two more years, retiring for the second time at the age of ninety-two, and only then because she fell and broke her hip.

Frances returned to Scotland that year, 2011, and this time stayed for the remainder of her life. The agreed plan was for her to stay with my parents as she traditionally did when she visited Scotland most summers. However my father had become increasingly unwell through the 2000s, and by 2011 he was so unwell that caring for him was affecting my mother's health. So Frances at first stayed with another sister, Margaret, then agreed to stay at Nazareth House, a Catholic care home.

She settled in remarkably well, loving the opportunity to go to daily morning mass. She also became one of the board that oversaw the care home, and ran the poetry reading group. She continued to read religious books, books on theology, and magazines and journals in those fields.

Despite two serious health mishaps she recovered and remained physically well for her age, and fully mentally alert. In that healthy condition she celebrated her 100th birthday in June 2019.

On Friday 24th April 2020 she woke up as usual, despite having suffered a fall two days earlier, had her lunch with others in the home at noon, and retired to her room. Just after 1pm a carer popped in to make sure she was fine, and Frances was sitting, happily reading her prayer book. Less than an hour later the carer returned. Frances was still sitting at peace, but now she was dead. The prayer book was on her lap.

As I let people know the sad news I have received many replies, all praising Frances for the huge and positive influence she had made on their lives. One man said she was the most impressive person he had ever met.

That's a very fitting way to finish this tribute. She touched thousands of lives, and nurtured all of those she touched. And from a personal perspective, I'd like to say thank you for all you did for me Frances, and especially that first-known encounter we had in the cold waters of the Cadzow Burn back in the summer of 1960.

I owe you my life, and I hope I have lived it well enough to justify your saving it for me.

May you rest in peace, knowing you are loved dearly by many.


© 2019 by Martin Stepek.