Nona Mahoney, 86; ‘heroic survivor’ endured many of life’s trials

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 30, 2009

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Part way through the summer that Nona Rohan Mahoney’s daughter spent cooking and cleaning for Lillian Hellman, the aging writer inquired about the family of her young domestic. Learning that Rosemary’s father had died, leaving Nona a widow with seven young children, Hellman wondered, “How on earth did she manage?’’

She didn’t know the half of it. The list of what Nona Mahoney endured in the years she was a much-loved mother and treasured friend includes surviving polio, which rendered her left leg useless and afflicted two of her three sisters. Her physician husband killed himself when their children were young. She slipped into alcoholism, but still rose each morning to work, support the family, and tend to life’s chores. She defeated the alcoholism and survived breast cancer, only to fade into the haze of Alzheimer’s disease at the end of her life.

Mrs. Mahoney, who was women’s editor of the Boston Post, taught children with learning disabilities, and performed in a theater company for actors with disabilities, died of pneumonia Oct. 15 in the St. Elizabeth Manor nursing home in Bristol, R.I. She was 86 and lived in Milton for many years.

“She was, first of all, a heroic survivor, just an indomitable survivor,’’ said her friend Priscilla Dewey Houghton of Cohasset. “And she was a writer, an editor, a teacher, an actor. She could do anything.’’

Her strength was apparent to all who knew her, including the children who saw Mrs. Mahoney quite literally fall, then take up her crutches and rise again to the challenges of running a household after she became a single parent.

“I have to believe that it was her faith in God that kept her going,’’ said her daughter Ellen Mahoney Sawyer of Edina, Minn. “I used to ask her: ‘Why would God let you get polio? Why would God let you be a widow? Why would God let you get breast cancer?’ She would say: ‘God is testing me, God is testing my faith. There is a lesson here for me, I just have to figure out what it is.’ That’s a pretty strong faith.’’

In Rosemary Mahoney’s book “A Likely Story,’’ which recounts the acrimonious summer she spent as Hellman’s hired help, she draws a sharply etched portrait of her mother that is as loving as it is frank about the toll Mrs. Mahoney’s alcoholism took on the family.

Before publishing the book, she let her mother read the manuscript.

“I said to her, ‘Is there anything that you want me to take out?’ There was a long silence, and she said: ‘No, it is your book, and it is truthful. It is much better to have the truth come out than to hide it,’ ’’ said Rosemary, who lives in Athens. “She didn’t ask me to change it, and I didn’t. I think it’s a testament to my mother’s innate understanding of what it is to be a human being. Nobody’s perfect, and to try to pretend you’re perfect is an exhausting fool’s errand.’’

Nona Rohan grew up in Dorchester, a daughter of Irish immigrants, and was so attractive that when she drove a forklift at a shipyard during World War II, other workers thought she was a movie star researching a role. By then, one of her sisters had already died of polio.

Like her two surviving sisters, Mrs. Mahoney graduated from Emmanuel College and went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. She received a master’s degree in journalism and returned to live with her parents in Dorchester, working as women’s editor of the Boston Post.

One day, she wanted to interview a Dr. Mahoney and called the wrong one. She had reached Dr. John P. Mahoney, who was so taken by the sound of her voice on the phone that he asked her out. She married him in 1953 and left the newspaper. They had seven children in seven years and settled in Milton.

Pregnant with her third child, Mrs. Mahoney was diagnosed with polio, as was one of her sisters. Though Mrs. Mahoney lost the use of her left leg, she survived, but her sister died. Several years later, as her oldest children entered their teens, her husband’s struggles with depression intensified and he took his life.

“Lord knows she was dealt a difficult hand,’’ Ellen said. “But she was really smart, really funny, beautiful, very stylish. When we were kids, I really did think she was perfect. She was one of those people who walk into a room and people notice.’’

Mrs. Mahoney also surrounded herself with a coterie of women who met, at first once a week, for a book club.

“She was the definitive book club aficionado,’’ Houghton said. “For 35 years she was the eloquent catalyst and informed scholar of our club, a wise observer of the frailties of the human condition, and all grounded in her faith. She was such a profound believer.’’

When her husband died, Mrs. Mahoney became certified to teach students with learning disabilities. She also started a Montessori school in Milton.

As her children left home for college, she rekindled her interest in acting and joined Next Move Unlimited, a theater company that included actors in wheelchairs and some who, like Mrs. Mahoney, used crutches. She also volunteered at Talking Information Center in Marshfield, reading books aloud as her voice was recorded for blind listeners.

In the 1990s, she retired and moved to Marshfield, before relocating to Rhode Island as her health failed.

Mrs. Mahoney eventually stopped drinking - on her own, her daughters said, without assistance from support groups. Perhaps inspired by her own experience of persevering though grief and illness to sample life with new jobs, the book club, and acting, she pushed her children to find their own paths.

“So she was very encouraging - ‘Follow your dreams, do what you want to do,’ ’’ Ellen said.

Near the end of “A Likely Story,’’ Rosemary wrote:

“My mother had faith in me, had more faith in me than I had in myself, and knowing that she did made me try to find faith. She believed in trying things. She always said, ‘If you don’t try you’ll always be wondering what would have happened if you had tried. That’s not a good feeling, Ra.’ ’’

In addition to her daughters Ellen and Rosemary, Mrs. Mahoney leaves three sons, James of Mansfield, Stephen of Meriden, Conn., and John Jr. of Cranston, R.I.; two other daughters, Sheila of Silver Spring, Md., and Elizabeth of Tisbury; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at noon Dec. 5 in St. Brendan Church in Dorchester.