Dreams really do come true. Keep dreaming!
What I wouldn’t give to spend one single day with my mom again. I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before and even though I’ve accumulated a lifetime of questions, millions of questions to ask her, there’s a chance I’d be so tongue-tied I wouldn’t be able to say a word. I’m sure there would be a lot of hugging and laughing and crying too. We’d have a lot of catching up to do, since I haven’t seen my mom in 44 years, except for a hand full of times in my dreams. I think more than anything though, I would need time to just sit and look at her, soaking up every single nuance and movement, savoring every single moment and word she would say so I could remember, long after that day was done.
I only knew her for 12 years and not surprisingly, a couple of those early years really don’t count. And even though the time was short, my mom had a huge impact on my life and helped shape me into the woman that I am today. What follows are somewhat random stories and memories, some of them mere tidbits about my mom. Some of them were gifted to me by others, like my siblings or other relatives, and some I traveled the world to discover. My Aunt Sally, my mom’s youngest sister, shared her memories over cups of tea in her home in Dublin, and was just as eager to hear the stories that I would tell her. I’m thinking a cup of tea might be the perfect companion for reading the words that follow.
It’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to my mom – Julia Lucy O’Hagan Spence.
Mom was born in Northern Ireland on December 17, 1919, and was the 5th child in a family of 6 girls and 2 boys. She was smart and often a favorite of her teachers, whom I was told often entrusted her with special duties, including running errands for them.
One of my favorite stories is when my mom was a young girl of around 8 or 9 years old and her mother (my granny) sent her on an errand too. Times weren’t easy for her family and so Granny O’Hagan raised and sold chickens to people in their village as an added source of income for their family. Because of that, they seldom got to eat any of the chickens themselves. One of Granny’s customers was the shopkeeper’s wife, Mrs. McNeil (I can’t remember the exact name), and on this particular day Mrs. McNeil wanted a chicken. Now my granny would have – raised the chicken and killed the chicken and gutted the chicken and plucked the feathers and singed off any remaining feathers and then cleaned it well one final time, before handing it to my mom to deliver it (holding it by the neck) to the shopkeepers’ house. Granny had given detailed instructions to the three of them, including the exact amount she was selling the chicken for – a shilling (I think). On that particular day, my Uncle Henry and Aunt Sally went along with my mom. When they got to Mrs. McNeil’s and with my mom still holding the chicken, Mrs. McNeil asked them the price and my mom told her a shilling. Mrs. McNeil replied that a shilling was a pretty dear price to pay for a chicken. Knowing all the work her mother had done preparing the chicken, my mom held up the chicken, waving it back and forth as she asked Mrs. McNeil if she wanted the chicken or not. Mrs. McNeil did not appreciate my mom’s attitude and told her she was a pretty cheeky girl and no, she didn’t want the chicken anymore, especially for that price. So my mom, my uncle, and my aunt turned around and went home, with the chicken. My aunt remembered my mom walking with confidence all the way home, while she and my uncle walked slowly with trepidation. They all knew that Granny counted on the money she earned from the chickens and they were afraid of what would happen when they got home. Of course Granny was taken aback when they returned still carrying the chicken and asked my mom what had happened. My mom told her and said she couldn’t stand to see Mrs. McNeill squabble about the price when she knew how hard Granny worked raising and selling the chickens. Aunt Sally remembered holding her breath waiting for the sure-to-follow punishment or reprimand, and instead was dumbfounded and then immediately delighted, when Granny clapped her hands together and announced, “Well it looks like we’ll be having chicken for supper tonight!”
Aunt Sally also shared that when they got older and went to dances, my mom’s dance card would always be full. She said at the same time she’d be sitting along the wall hoping and praying for just one dance, on the dance floor there’d be no shortage of young men clamoring to get just one chance to dance with my mom.
In 1945, my mom met my dad. They fell in love and were married all in a matter of a few months near the end of WWII. According to the stories, which are somewhat legendary in my family, they were fast soul mates and theirs was a storybook kind of love and romance. It wasn’t until nearly a year after marrying, when my mom who had been apart from my dad all that time, crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a ship filled with other war brides arriving first in New York City and then setting up home with my dad in Central Wisconsin.
A rather amazing and little known fact was that when my mom met my dad she smoked. My dad smoked too. He told Mom his mother wasn’t fond of women smoking and so in an effort to win her mother-in-law over, my mom quit. When she arrived in America, she was surprised to find out that both of my dad’s sisters smoked. It was a habit my mother never took up again.
Coming from Ireland, she had an Irish brogue and pronounced the letter ‘H’ as haych. To us kids, she just sounded like Mom. Once while picnicking in a park, someone walking by overheard our mom talking. They stopped and asked her if she was from Ireland and she said yes. I still remember several of us kids asking each other, “How did they know?”
She enjoyed having fun with unusual sounding last names and would often add a random rhyming word to them, turning them into even more ridiculous names.
She used a pressed face powder by Avon named Fawn and I can still remember opening the compact and smelling the comforting and soft smell of it.
She wore red lipstick, but only when she was going out, oftentimes somewhere special with my dad. She would blot her freshly applied lips with one square of toilet tissue and toss it into the toilet. I used to love seeing her floating kiss print on the tossed tissue.
I remember Mom almost always wearing an apron. And in a way, I’m just like her. I wear one nearly every day too.
I don’t look anything like my mom, but I do have her hands and my daughter has mine. I like that.
I remember thinking my mom was rather tall, but that was from a kid’s perspective. It turns out she was 5’3” and that’s another thing we share. I’m only a half inch taller.
She drank instant Sanka with cream (only in our house – whole milk). My dad drank his coffee black with sugar. I know, because I used to sometimes drink (sneak) their leftover coffee. In spite of not heeding the warning that drinking coffee might stunt my growth, I actually grew to be one of the tallest girls in my family. Stop laughing.
Mom was a devout Catholic and often went to daily Mass, usually walking the 2 block distance to our church, many times with our Granny Szepieniec. Sometimes in the summer, I went with them too.
She had a soft mint green glow-in-the-dark well-used rosary with large beads that she kept in her bedroom, taking it with her whenever she went to the hospital.
She would call us heathens whenever we started eating without praying first.
She used to put teaspoons in the freezer and got a kick out of dropping one of them down the back of one of us unsuspecting kids, usually at the end of a meal, while we were all still sitting at the kitchen table.
Ever modest, I don’t ever remember seeing her walking around or lounging in her pajamas. She was always fully dressed by the time us kids came downstairs for breakfast.
She made us breakfast before school every day. Sometimes it was pancakes or hot cereal, and sometimes it was scrambled eggs or poached eggs on toast. Poached eggs and toast was always a family favorite. She would lovingly cut each sandwich into four little squares and to this day, many of us have shared that when we need a little comfort, we make this same sandwich cut the exact same way.
When Mom made pancakes they took up almost the whole plate. One time as I watched her pour pancake batter into the hot frying pan, I asked her if she would make the little silver dollar size ones like my Auntie Rena made during vacations at the cottage in the summer. Without hesitation my mother asked me if I was crazy. Even now it cracks me up to type these words. She said, “With this crowd, I’d be making pancakes all day!”
I remember Mom stressing the importance of good penmanship, since it might be the only thing anyone ever knew about us.
She was an avid letter writer and wrote frequent letters to her family in Ireland. I remember walking to the post office to mail and sometimes buy her more aerogramme letters.
For many years she wore dresses almost every day and one of her most memorable dresses had chickens on it. It might sound silly to some people, but that dress often gave us kids hope. So many times when we would ask her for special things that required more money than our family had, she would reply, ‘Maybe, when I sell my chickens.’ Only now, I wonder if when she said this to us, if she ever thought of her own mom selling her chickens.
She used to get a kick out of one of my brother’s friends mistaking her for one of my older sisters and not the mom.
Mom got married at 25, gave birth to her first child at 26 and the baby of the family at 42. She got her driver’s license when she was 45 and would return to Ireland only once, when she was 43.
She loved being a grandmother. Sadly, she only got to meet one of her 27 grandchildren and none of the 28 great grandchildren that followed.
She had lots of sayings and lessons she tried to teach us…
I remember Mom instructing us that we should never crawl into an unmade bed, except I think I missed part of her instructions. More than once when heading to bed I stopped to make the bed first and then crawled in to go to sleep. My older sister was always one to enlighten me, and when she saw what I was doing, rather disgustedly pointed out the lesson I had missed.
Mom loved garage sales – a trait she passed to all of her daughters.
She was organized. She had to be. Dishes were done after every meal. Beds were made every day and sheets were washed weekly.
Every Saturday morning, the kitchen floor was washed and the whole house was cleaned. After dinner, all the shoes got polished for Sunday morning Mass. I can still see the assorted sized polished pairs all lined up along the wall on top of sheets of newspaper.
Mom seemed to be forever washing and hanging clothes on the line, including the striped towels that came free inside boxes of Cheer detergent. How I LOVED those towels.
She taught my sisters and me how to iron. That was in the day when almost everything was made from cotton. We ironed pillow cases, shirts and blouses, aprons, and hankies.
She had a quick wit and loved to laugh. I have memories of seeing her laughing with her whole body bent over and then she’d take her glasses off to wipe her eyes after having laughed until she cried.
She was practical and wasted little. She lovingly saved the thin cardboard liners from stockings and later panty hose for me to draw on.
She was resourceful. I remember when we had family come from Poland and they gave my mom and dad several large down filled pillows as gifts. Now these pillows were HUGE! My mother broke them apart and sewed all of us brand new pillows.
Another time she worked her magic was when our oven wasn’t working. Mom made Irish Soda bread in a frying pan on top of the stove, telling us stories of when her mother made soda bread too. It was divine.
Mom loved birds and had two pet parakeets, and sometimes (to my horror) she let them fly around the house. The first parakeet was several shades of blue and named Pretty Bird. Pretty Bird died of natural causes or maybe from eating tin foil from its tin foil lined cage. I don’t exactly remember. The second bird was various shades of green, like the fields of Ireland and was appropriately named Erin. Erin was called to rest when my mom and dad were out of town one cold winter weekend. It just so happens the heat went out in our house and our brother-in-law and heating man, instructed my older sisters to turn the oven on high and leave the door open to help keep the house warm. Very lovingly, Erin and his cage were moved near the open oven door to keep him from freezing too. Hours later when our parents returned home, they were greeted by what smelled like baked chicken and singed feathers. Sad but true.
Mom always made our birthdays special, even though we didn’t get much in the way of gifts, although we always got something, generally a piece of needed clothing. The best part of the day was that we didn’t have to do a lick of work, including making our beds or doing any dishes. We also got to choose our favorite meal. My favorite was always baked chicken and baked potatoes.
Mom was fiercely loyal and protective. Once an elderly neighbor lady barged into our kitchen at dinner time, with us all seated at the table. This lady went into a tirade about us kids dropping sticks on her yard and walking on her grass. She continued with what she would do if she had kids like us, I’m remembering something about locking us up in cages. When our mother had had enough, she gave her an earful, telling her it was a good thing she didn’t have any kids and that she wasn’t welcome in our house. Seconds after the doors slammed shut, she immediately stopped any cheering and let us all have it afterwards. We were to stay away from her yard and her house and leave the old baddleax (her word) in peace.
My brothers were always impressed with the fact that Mom had seen the real Three Stooges in person. Mom on the other hand, had NOT been impressed with the Three Stooges. She said they acted like complete idiots – a sentiment that still might be shared by the majority of the female population today.
She enjoyed watching two soap operas, Secret Storm, and Edge of Night.
Kit Kats and Junior Mints were her favorite candy.
One of her favorite songs was Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. I think of her whenever I hear that song or melody.
Every May of my childhood, I remember lilies of the valley growing along the front of our house, and to this day they remind me of my mom. Little handpicked bouquets were often a centerpiece on our kitchen table. So were dandelions.
I’m thinking she must have craved alone time or at least peace and quiet, but with our family it was probably something she seldom, if ever got, except maybe when we were all in school.
Mom battled for years with assorted health issues, including colitis and then breast and brain cancer. Cancer won.
My mother died early one cold morning in December with no family by her side, ten days before she would have celebrated her 50th birthday. For as long as I live I will never forget hearing the phone ring and my dad answering the phone. It was the only time I ever heard my dad cry. It’s a sound that broke my heart. Besides our dad, she left behind 11 children ranging in age from 7 to 23 years old, and 1 grandchild with 2 more on the way. Today would have been her 94th birthday.
What I wouldn’t give to spend one birthday moment with her again, or any moment for that matter, even if just in my dreams. I know my siblings feel the exact same way.