Anna Willis O’Dea: The Grandmother We Never Knew

A grandmother is a person who pretends not to know who you are on Halloween. She is the babysitter who watches you instead of the television. A grandmother does not just say that’s nice … she reels back, rolls her eyes, throws up her hands and smiles. But most importantly, it is as grandmothers that we witness our own mothers coming into the fullness of their grace.  

My grandmother, Anna Willis O’Dea, was the third child of Irish immigrants, born on June 27 in 1877. Anna lived her entire life in Rutherford, New Jersey surrounded by family – her two older brothers, Joseph and Laurence, a younger sister Elizabeth, and a baby brother, Benedict,  as well as aunts and uncles who lived within walking distance of her home. She married Daniel O’Dea when she was 23, settling into 131 Humboldt Street. Anna’s first home was next door to her husband’s aunt, a widow living with her three children, 21, 20, and 19, close to Anna’s own age.  Anna’s life was rooted in family as her husband, Daniel, working for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad as an inspector, travelled Monday through Friday on business. His job had benefits, though, one being his family having free passes for the train. During the week, Anna could walk to one of the many train stops in Rutherford, and in very little time she would disembark at the elegant Pennsylvania Station at Eighth Avenue and 31st Street.  Anna was legendary in her love of nice things, and nice things could be found in New York City.

Anna lost her first child, Daniel, when he was a toddler, but she went on to have another son, Arthur, in 1905, followed by twin girls, Helen and Anne, in 1910.  When Anna was 56 years old, her son Arthur graduated from law school at New York University, was admitted to the bar and married.  Soon after, her twin daughters graduated from The College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York, which was a short train ride from Pennsylvania Station. Her daughter Anne majored in English and Helen in French.  Upon graduation, each of her daughters was hired as teachers in New York City. The following year, 1934, her first grandchild was born, a baby girl who was named Anna. For a woman in her fifties, there was so much joy amidst so many family accomplishments for this first-generation Irish immigrant family. 

However, the joy slipped away when, on November 3, in 1935, Anna passed away at the age of 58 from a burst appendix.  Her only living son had but briefly witnessed his mother coming into the fullness of her grace as a grandmother. Family stories suggest Anna had been a great supporter of Arthur’s wife, Bessie, whose own mother lived far away in Maine on a farm that straddled the Canadian border.  Anna’s death was a great loss to the young couple starting out. Arthur and Bessie would go on to raise seven children, seven children who never knew their Grandmother Anna. But Anna was all around them. Literally, all around them – throughout their childhood.

Helen and Anne, her twin daughters, had been teaching in New York City schools since their graduation from college.  Shortly after their mother’s death, they returned to their childhood home in Rutherford to look after their widowed father, till he passed away in 1937.  Within a year or so of his passing, the O’Dea home at 171 Sylvan Street in Rutherford was lost, with the contents of the house going to their son, Arthur.  In 1940 Arthur bought a three-bedroom home on Mill Street in Westwood, New Jersey, a house that had been built by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1898 for his daughter and son-in-law. Arthur and Bessie’s family had grown to include two daughters and two sons when they moved into 250 Mill Street, and the family grew to include two more daughters and another son – all of whom grew up there.

Most of the furnishings at Mill Street came from the house on Sylvan Street in Rutherford, the nice things which Anna had presumably bought on her shopping expeditions in New York City. Arthur and Bessie’s seven children were allowed to play with, on, under, and over these nice things. Mill Street was a remarkable house for a child to grow up in, as while nothing was for show, the furnishings were fine.  When Bessie passed away, predeceased by her husband, the house on Mill Street was sold just as the house in Rutherford had been.  Anna’s nice things were dispersed among the seven children. 

Anna, her grandmother’s namesake, and the oldest O’Dea sibling, is now 85.  She recently sent to her six siblings a picture of peonies from her garden which she had arranged in a large blue vase. The touching responses to this picture from the other siblings were not about Anna’s peonies, but the nostalgic memories of that blue vase which always sat on their mother’s piano in the house where they grew up on Mill Street, the blue vase having come to Mill Street from Sylvan Avenue.

Maureen, Arthur and Bessie’s fifth child, relocated to Florida upon her retirement, bringing precious little from her home in New Jersey to her new house in Florida. However, a desk presides in the guest room where her siblings sleep whenever they visit their sister and her husband, a desk that Mrs. O’Dea had on Sylvan Street,  a desk that served as a stanchion near the front door at Mill Street. 

Another fine-looking desk at Mill Street was the secretary which had been a wedding gift to Arthur and Bessie from Arthur’s mother, Anna. Bessie moved this desk into the first bedroom her youngest daughter, Susan, had to herself.  When Susan married, Bessie repeated her mother-in-law’s gesture in giving Susan the desk as a wedding gift. This desk now stands in what Susan calls her reading room. Her five-year-old granddaughter likes to visit with her in the reading room. While Susan reads, the little girl “works” at what she calls the “Lady’s Desk”. She pulls out the stickies, the stapler, the scotch tape, scissors, pencils, paper clips, the pencil sharpener, etc.  In truth, Susan does not read, but in good grandmother fashion, watches her granddaughter play at the desk which her Grandmother Anna gave to her parents some 87 years ago. 

Anna Willis O’Dea had seven grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren she never knew, and who never knew her.  Whenever the word grandmother is spoken, there is an undertone of warmth, there is the suggestion of character,  and the word is often followed by a sigh, for far too often grandmothers are already gone before we truly understand them, that is, until we are grandmothers ourselves. 


I  have written this piece on my grandmother in third person for the simple reason that I  personally find family stories that take the reader through two or three generation becomes littered  with my father, my mother, my father’s sister, my grandfather’ brother, etc This my this and my that becomes not only old, but eventually hard to follow. 

Your writer is Susan, the youngest of Arthur’s seven children, born in 1954. Arthur was 49 when I was born, Bessie 42. The two of them had already raised six children before me, which contributed to my having a childhood unlike most of my peers. I travelled to Ireland with my father in 1965, as he set out to find whatever he could of his mother’s people, the Willis family, in County Galway, Ireland. That year, Dad was sixty years old, and I was 11.  This enterprise brought us to a crumbling chimney in the field behind a house wherein resided the remaining distant relations to the Willis family in Woodford, Ireland.  This was a poignant moment for my father which I was privileged to witness, but too young at the time to fully appreciate.  I do remember the quiet drive back to the cottage where we were staying. If only I had asked him on that quiet drive to tell me about his mother. I have so many unanswered questions about Anna.

There was always a friction between my mother and my father’s twin sisters. Each of my siblings has their own explanation for this friction, a topic I choose not to delve into. Suffice it to say that due to the early loss of his mother and father, my father was left alone to deal with his precarious position between his wife and his sisters. One result of this is that I and my siblings heard very little about our father’s life growing up in Rutherford, about his family as a child growing up, about his father working for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, about his mother, our grandmother. In spite of the research my sister Maureen and her son-in-law, Shane, completed which led to my writing this account of Anna’s life, I am left with so many unanswered questions. Did Anna have a job before she married? If so, what was it? What sort of meals did she cook for you?  What games did the two of you play? Did she ever take you on outings on the train to New York City? Who were her friends? What did they do together to pass the time? How did she react when you told her your daughter’s name would be Anna? Did she ever give you some really good advice? What was it?  

However, If I was granted one question for my father, whom I lost when I was 21, I would ask my father for one memory of his mother that he held closest to his heart.  For there must be something there, something quite strong, for a man of sixty to travel to Ireland to find his mother’s people, to see for himself the place his mother’s people came from.  

 I will not get to ask that question, but if you are reading this, why don’t you answer it. What is one memory of your mother that you hold closest to your heart? Now, write it down, so her grandchildren are not left to only wonder.

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