A Tribute to the Wonderful Irene O'Connor

My grandma - the beautiful, intelligent, and hilarious Irene O'Connor - passed away this Saturday. She is survived by a boatload of family who love and adore her.

Irene was not your typical grandmother. Her home wasn't covered in teddy bears and lace. She didn't shower us in gifts and trinkets and lipsticky kisses. She wore leopard print blouses with fire engine red leather pants. She wore striking zebra print neck scarves with pink blazers. She was fabulous. Sure, she still made us the best chicken dumpling soup when we were sick, and she still wrapped us up in warm towels and hugs when we got out of her pool. She still always had homemade cookies in her purse and would sneak them to us as often as she could. But she was so cool too. Irene was the first person to teach me that you don't have to fulfill the stereotype set out for you. You can be whoever you want to be! You can be complicated and layered. We all are, and that's a good thing.

Irene dancing with her father at her wedding. What a beauty!
Irene survived three husbands. Can you imagine? Her first marriage lasted only eight months. Her husband, Gene Bowman, was a milkman. Unfortunately he was killed in an accident with his milk truck. Irene could have been devastated - she was 19 and already a widow. But instead, she chose to take life by the horns. She traveled! She went to Cuba and Europe. She got boyfriends all over - for years afterwards, she would receive post cards from all the hearts she had broken across Europe.

Back home, Irene married Don Wujciak, my original grandfather and a super smart engineer. They moved from Michigan down to Ohio for his job. They had four delightful children - two boys and two girls, including my mother, Kathryn. Then one morning on the way to work, Don's car was hit by a train. Very suddenly, Irene was a single mother of four children, all under seven. And she was all alone in Ohio.

But did Irene crumble? Of course not. She was practical. She knew she had to raise these four kids. She moved back up to Michigan and into the welcoming and supportive arms of our wonderful family. Irene had four sisters, and they were all magnificent women. My family revolved around these matriarchs and their big, rambling families. Irene loved her family, and she instilled a great love for family in all of us as well!

She raised her kids by herself. And I think they turned out pretty good! My mother, aunt, and uncles are all successful, kind, and generous people. At some point (I think my mom was in middle school), Irene met Tom, the man I consider my grandfather. But she didn't want to marry him until the kids were out of school. Irene said she had survived this long on her own; she didn't need a man coming in and telling her what to do now. Oh, Irene! So progressive!

But after her kids were out of the house, Irene happily turned to her next adventure - she married Tom O'Connor and started working in the Prosecuting Attorney's office in downtown Flint. She loved working! Although she had loved raising her kids, she was finally able to do something for herself. And she was good at it, of course. She was super smart and great with people.

Actually some of my favorite memories about my grandma were the things she did for herself. She loved long baths and took one every night. She was a chocolate fiend. And she wasn't hoity toity about it - Hersheys or a Snickers would do. She watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart every night, religiously. She loved shopping - she just loved to browse! I can only imagine for a woman who spent so many years as a single parent how luxurious it must have felt to wander about a department store with no time limits.

Irene's zest for life was contagious and awe inspiring. This woman who had been through so much...always found a way to laugh, always found a reason to smile at any situation. Irene taught me how to be a strong, independent woman. She taught me to have a backbone, to stand up for myself, to be positive, to keep my chin up and get through it. She (and my mother) always said - everyone's got their bag of rocks.

But thankfully Irene doesn't have to deal with her bag of rocks anymore. After a lifetime of turning her hardships into happiness, Irene is finally free to eat as much chocolate as she wants and take as many baths as she wants. I hope she's up in heaven right now, browsing through all her wing choices and deciding between the leopard print and the red leather.

You deserve them both, Grandma. You deserve all of the wings.

We love you, Irene! And we will miss you!

My mom, my sister, Irene, and me. You can tell we think we're pretty hilarious.