Prologue: I am writing this post in the hours before my mother, Marlene Milnes-Fenton O’Brien, has died. Her death is eminent and I need to get my words out. She has been ill with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for a very long time. There are four stages to COPD and she is in Stage 4, also known as End Stage. We are at the very end of the End Stage.
As her life ends, there is so much to say. Our life was amazing, our relationship was not. One of the things that didn’t occur to me until she had passed away is the fact that out of all the people in the entire world, she is the person that knew me the longest. No one else had that title and when she died, that title died too. I have written so much that I decided to treat this like a play in three acts. Three separate blog posts where I will share the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A Play in Three Acts by Sarah O’Brien.
Act One: The Good
All I ever wanted, and I trust it is the same thing that most everyone wants, is a mother who loves you unconditionally, celebrates your successes and tells you that she is proud of you. Instead, I had a mother who spent her life building me up and tearing me down. I could write an entire post about being the daughter of a narcissistic mother. But, as she lay dying, I desperately wanted to find something, anything good about being her daughter. I needed to find something good to say about her.
As I sat with her in the hospital room, I could see that her body was frail, and weak and failing. Except for the notable exception of her hands. They were as strong and supple as ever, and I have so much respect for how she used them. Her adept hands have been the epicenter of her world and mine. Every memory of my mother involves her handiwork. Her hands were the tools she used to break and build her life, and I mean that quite literally. She could hold a cigarette with movie star grace in one moment, and in the next, expertly swing a 10-pound hammer. Those were just the bookends, the extreme examples. Imagine what she could do with her hands in between the cigarettes and the hammers.
She did everything with her hands. I say this with complete confidence, as long as I live, I will never know anyone that had the breadth and depth of capability that she had. She was good at everything she tried and she tried almost everything. Of all the areas that she attempted and succeeded, she excelled the most in the areas of sewing, knitting, pottery, painting, baking, cooking, crafting, gardening, home improvement and carpentry. She could sew a shirt that looked like it came from a fashion house, knit a multi-patterned sweater in black yarn (you either get this or you don’t), throw clay on a foot powered potting wheel, paint in every medium, bake and decorate wedding cakes, craft for every holiday, push mow her lawn, design and install an English Garden, hang drywall and replace windows. I am in awe of what she did with her hands. So I held them and honored them, I still remember how warm and soft they felt in mine.
And the words that I have been waiting for came to me…
It has been a long goodbye Mom. You don’t know this, but I spent the last few days holding your hands. We listened to Cat Stevens’ Greatest Hits, over and over again. I sobbed from anger and pain and regret and frustration and the unfairness of life. I read out loud your favorite Robert Frost poems. I brought you fragrant flowers so the smell of the lilac, freesia and sweet pea would sweeten your room. You have a corner room, it is clean and bright and spacious. You have a large window with an incredible view of the Long Island Sound. You always loved the water. I feel good about your room, it is so peaceful. You would have liked it. At first, I didn’t want to come to be with you. My early tears were born from frustration over a battle for my soul. I asked myself why I should care, after all, you didn’t care about me. You stole every little bit of sunshine in my life and took it for yourself. So, I asked myself again, why should I come and see you. I knew I had to be with you to find the answer. So I came. I looked at your hands and had an epiphany (Mom, only you will get the joke). For eighty-three years, your hands have done more than anyone I have ever known. And there was my answer. I came to see you and I found the good in you. Something to have made your life meaningful. You were not a good mother, you were a good role model.
I FOUND THE GOOD IN YOU
You are the most courageous person I know and because of that I am fearless. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most resourceful person I know and because of that I am creative. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most curious person I know and because of that I will try anything. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most resilient person I know and because of that I am a risk taker. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most self righteous person I know and because of that I don’t care what other people think of me. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most determined person I know and because of that I have grit. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most headstrong person I know and because of that I am passionate. Thank you for teaching me that.
You are the most ambitious person I know and because of that I have conquered my dreams. Thank you for teaching me that.
Of all the lessons that you have taught me, the most important one has been how to be a good mom. That was a lesson that I had to teach myself. I did find the good in you after all Mom.
My anger towards her was washed away with immense gratitude. She circled the sun 83 times and I was along for part of the ride. I am so grateful to have been in her orbit.
She rallied a little in hospital and was well enough to travel home where hospice care resumed. She passed away in her living room, surrounded by all her books and hand made pottery pieces that her children had made for her. After she was gone, I spent a lot of time just sitting in the room. You can learn a lot about what a person values by the things that they keep.
I started writing about her death before she died. A few days after she passed away, I wrote her obituary. I waited on purpose. In the hours and days after her death, many people came to me and told me about her and how she had impacted their life. Their words influence me and helped me find a way to honor her despite a rough upbringing.
Writing her obituary was cathartic, I felt like I had gathered up all the good things about her and packaged it neatly into a final tribute. Nothing more will ever be said or printed about her, this is it. I wanted to give her a proper send off, so I sent her obituary to The Gleaner, Jamaica’s newspaper and I was surprised and very touched at the amount of time and effort they spent on publishing a full-page article on my mom. They found old photos in the library archives that I had never seen before. Below is the article and I have included a link to the newspaper at the end of the blog post.
Marlene O’Brien, Jamaica Beauty Queen, Dies at 83
Marlene (Milnes-Fenton) O’Brien, the beauty who glided away with the Miss Jamaica title in 1955, passed away last Friday at her home in Fairfield, Connecticut, after a long illness, her daughter Sarah O’Brien, told The Gleaner. She was 83.
The beauty queen, who won the title at 17, went on to live a fulsome life, sprinkled with adventure, and which saw her working at the Jamaica Tourist Board and also with American domestic lifestyle innovator Martha Stewart.
She was gifted with a personal style that was totally unique. She had an incredible flair for life and was one of the original do-it-yourself personalities, her daughter recalled.
“She was a trailblazer in the 1970s as a single parent and female entrepreneur. She was gutsy, ambitious, and driven while being graceful, elegant, and poised. She squeezed out every drop of her remarkable life and lived by her own rules,” Sarah O’Brien, founder and editor of lifestyle blog Connecticut in Style told The Gleaner.
“My mother lived a remarkable life. She was a very complex woman because she embodied the qualities of so many different characteristics. She was worldly, glamorous, and stylish, but also courageous, fiercely independent, and resourceful. She had so much energy and passion and lived with inexhaustible joie de vivre. She wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. People used to call her a lion,” she said.
Marlene was born in the United Kingdom to the late Jack and Ester Milnes-Fenton. Growing up as the daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, Marlene spent her youth sailing between England and Jamaica. She completed her high school education at an all-girls boarding school in England and immediately entered the beauty pageant circuit. She was crowned Miss Jamaica and reigned from 1955-1956.
LIFE AFTER MISS JAMAICA
Following her reign, she became a New York City socialite and married the late Edward Michael O’Brien, Sr in England at the Cheadle Hulme Church, Great Britain. An exciting European honeymoon saw the couple touring Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and France. They resided in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and together, they had three children – Amanda, Edward, and Sarah. Soon after the birth of her youngest child, Marlene relocated her children to Kingston, Jamaica, where they shared their life with Whylie ‘Chunky’ Lopez Jr of Kingston for over a decade.
When the couple split, their home at 9 Russell Heights, Kingston, was sold to reggae singer, Bob Marley. Marlene moved her family back to the United States and settled in Westport, Connecticut, where her three children attended school. She worked briefly for the Jamaica Tourist Board and later became manager of the Ann Taylor clothing store on Westport’s Main Street, where she leveraged her natural talent for personal styling into a successful career.
Marlene met Martha Stewart at the beginning of her business venture and worked as an integral part of Stewart’s team for many years. She was the food stylist for Martha Stewart’s TV segments and was a significant creative contributor to many of Martha Stewart’s books, especially Martha Stewart Weddings, for which she is credited. After her children were settled in university, she received an offer that would see her return to Jamaica. Marlene became the general manager of Morgan’s Harbour Hotel in Kingston.
Upon returning to the States, she settled in Fairfield, Connecticut, and launched a small catering business. She was the private chef for Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Her reputation as a caterer spread through Fairfield County, Connecticut, and soon, she was catering parties for other celebrities that lived in the area. She retired in 2002 after a successful career in the entertainment and hospitality industry. She enjoyed cooking, sewing, painting, crafting, and was an avid reader. Marlene looked forward to reading the Sunday New York Times in its entirety.
She was a devoted grandmother, and in her retirement, she loved spending time with her grandchildren.
Marlene is survived by her three children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. The family will hold a private memorial service in Ocho Rios, where Marlene will forever rest in peace on her beloved island of Jamaica.
Jamaica’s newspaper did a lovely full-page tribute to my mother, if you are interested in reading it and seeing photos of her at the Miss Jamaica Pageant, click HERE.