Mother-daughter relationships can be tricky, but mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships can be downright disastrous – or so it would seem, given the stereotypical image (the film “Monster-in-Law” and a Web site called motherinlawhell.com being good examples).
But Julie Donovan considers herself twice blessed, having enjoyed a positive relationship as a child with the mother of the man she eventually married, and later, a second positive relationship with her husband’s stepmother.
She still remembers the day Patty Donovan died at the age of 50, in 1973, leaving nine kids between the ages of 18 and 6. Julie, 16 at the time, was best friends with one of Patty’s daughters, Annie. The two girls had spent many summers playing together on the beaches of Long Island in Casco Bay.
Julie and her family, the Doughtys, lived year-round on the island, while Annie and her family spent summers there. Julie has fond memories of going to Annie’s house.
“There were always kids coming and going,” she said. At mealtime, whoever was there got fed.
Born on St. Patrick’s Day, Patty Barron Donovan had grown up on the Eastern Promenade in Portland and began coming to the island as a child. She married Joseph “Dick” Donovan and they settled in Connecticut. Deeply religious, she attended Saturday Mass at the tiny island church, Star of the Sea. She always wanted to know where her kids were going and what they were doing, but, Julie said, she gave them lots of freedom. When the boys got older, she let them set up a tent next to the cottage, with one rule: “No girls in the tent.”
As Julie recalled, Patty would sit in her kitchen singing Irish songs and saying her Rosary, and would announce, “I’m praying for everyone on the island.” Her faith in God was followed closely by her faith in the lottery. “When my ship comes in, I’m buying all of you something you want,” she would say.
Patty’s sudden death from a stroke in 1983 left Annie and the older Donovan children helping one another, and their father, through their grief. Julie and Annie continued their close friendship into their late teens, when Julie began dating Annie’s brother, Tony. Married in 1983, Julie and Tony went on to have their own family, settling in Portland and raising two daughters, Laura Jane and Allie
While Julie says it would have been a joy to have had Patty as a mother-in-law, Tony’s father’s second marriage brought another loving relationship into her life. Three years after Patty’s death, Dick Donovan married Mary Quinlan, who had been left alone with three young daughters after her husband died of cancer.
In the ensuing years, Julie saw Mary Donovan bring the two households together, always gracious, always welcoming. She grew to love Dick’s children, and later his children’s children, as well as her own children and grandchildren. In later years, Dick’s health declined, and he died in 1989 of a heart attack.
Julie remembers a conversation her friend (and sister-in-law) Annie had with Mary after her father died. Annie was around 48 at the time.
“You were my age when you got married,” she told Mary, “and I wonder, would I have wanted to take on all those kids?”
Mary’s answer was: “When you love someone enough, you do.”
Mary Donovan, who was 81 in February, stays in touch with nine children, 22 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She continues to live alone in her home in Bristol.