“I drove until I was 98,” Mary Catherine Kowalski Fennessy said. “Oh, it was wonderful to drive. I do miss it.”
“She’s always been the driving force behind our family’s success,” her son, Joe Fennessy, 67, said. He sat in an armchair next to Mary, who nestled at the end of a sofa. She lives with her youngest son, Tom, 62; his wife, Elaine; and their daughter Kristen in East Meadow. Mary has two sons, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Tom, Elaine, Mary’s granddaughter Donna Younghans and her three children (Lucy, 11, Jack, 6, and Allie, 7) and Donna’s mother-in-law, Dot Younghans, sat in a circle around Mary in the living room.
“She’s the first one to reach 100 in the family,” Joe said.
With a wide smile, Mary let out a short, loud giggle. “It’s true!” she said. “The first 100 years are the hardest!”
Mary will reach a first Fennessy milestone as she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday on Sept. 17. Born in 1917 to Joseph and Francis in Brooklyn, Mary was one of seven children. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from Poland. Her father took a job as a wagon driver for the Borden Milk Company, and her mother was a homemaker.
On July 7, 1949, she married James Joseph Fennessy, who lived in her Brooklyn neighborhood. He had served in the Navy during World War II, from 1942 to 1945. After his return, mutual friends set them up on a date.
“We used to go to a beer saloon,” Mary said, clapping. “Oh, it was so fun! We used to go to Willy’s. Willy was so nice!”
Her great-grandchildren shared a laugh with their mother, Donna. “Of course, she remembers that,” Donna said.
James later served in the New York Police Department until his death in 1967. Mary never remarried. Instead, Tom — who followed his father’s path and served in the NYPD and is now a retired sergeant — said that Mary raised her sons on her own and maintained an active life.
After managing a beauty supply store for 20 years, she traveled to Holland, Paris and Amsterdam in her 70s. She babysat her grandchildren, vacationed with her family in Sag Harbor and cruised the Caribbean. She sometimes sleeps at Donna’s house, and cuddles with her great-grandchildren. Other times, she plays with her other great-grandchildren: Anthony, 12, Andrew, 8, and Sebastian, 4.
“Part of the reason she’s still with us here is because she never stops,” Elaine said. “When she could, she never stopped.”
Joe, who lives in Wantagh, has been a South Nassau Communities Hospital board member since 2003, and has served as its board chairman for the past five years. Joe said his mother irons every piece of clothing she finds, and still cooks gołąbki, a Polish dish of rice and chopped meat wrapped in cooked cabbage leaves. After dinner, Mary grabs a towel and dries the dishes.
Allie, who boasted that her middle name is Mary after her great-grandmother, flashed Mary a smile. “Come here,” Mary crooned. Allie showcased her lost tooth. Mary laughed, and kissed her. “They keep me going,” she said.
The family has been planning a special surprise for Mary’s milestone birthday, which includes celebrating Mass. A devout Catholic, she attends St. Raphael’s Parish in East Meadow every Sunday. And most Tuesdays and Thursday, she plays bingo at church, her favorite pastime.
“We can’t thank you enough,” Tom said, “for taking care of us and sacrificing your life for us.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Mary responded.