Bessie Mclaughlin O’Dea July 15, 1912 – May 14, 1998

I once asked one of my older brothers, Arthur, what the nicest thing was that Mom ever did for him.  He told me a story from the time inhis life when he had finished law school and began working for a law firm in the well-to-do northern New Jersey town of Tenafly. He had married during law school and there were three or four of his eventual nine children at home, in a new house he had bought with one tremendous mortgage. He had a briefcase which his wife had  given to him as a graduation gift, and he laughed when he recalled that all he had to take to work in his briefcase was his lunch.  Back then, my oldest brother was just starting out.

One day he was out of the office for some reason, and he happened to drive by 250 Mill Street, the house where our parents had raised all seven of us. Noticing that Mom’s Dodge Dart was in the driveway, he decided to stop by and say hello.  Mom looked him over from head to toe as he came in the kitchen door, telling him how terrific he looked, and then they sat together in the dining room drinking tea. Art proudly told her about this and that – all that was going on with his kids and with his new job and with the new house. Mom listened patiently. It was getting near lunch time, so Mom offered to treat him to lunch in town to which Art readily agreed.  Walking down Main Street in Westwood, Mom took her oldest son by the arm and asked if she could treat him to a new pair of shoes. Art blushed, looking down and seeing the worn leather shoes on his feet.  The shoe budget was stretched to the limit as it was just to cover shoes for the four children.  Mom asked her oldest son to let her do this for him as it would make her happy.  Art knew it would make him that much more comfortable with his new colleagues.   So they went in to the shoe store on Main Street in Westwood and Mom bought him the finest pair of Florsheim shoes the store had to offer.

My sister Elizabeth told me another story in answer to the same question. Miss Hughes, her high school Latin teacher at Westwood High School assigned translations every night.  Her students, who did not like Miss Hughes, had gotten their hands on the answer sheets; these were passed around the study halls each day so that the next day’s homework was not only complete, but 100% correct. The students felt justified. From their perspective, this was about as much effort as Miss Hughes was putting into teaching them. One day in study hall my sister Liz got caught in the act by  Pussy Foot (alias the principal) on one of his routine spying expeditions.

Liz went home for lunch that day, and sat at the dining room table explaining her plight to Mom.  Mom listened silently, with her familiar “mm-hmmm” following each stage of the story.  Liz finished her story with Mom’s only remark a final “mm-hmm”. Liz went back to school, fully expecting to be expelled.  There was a rumor in the halls that afternoon that Liz O’Dea’s Mom had been seen entering the school. Upon hearing this, Liz was sure this was the end of her life.

My sister never heard another word from anybody about this event and she certainly did not bring the subject up.  Soon afterward, Miss Hughes was replaced by Mr. O’Connell, and Latin I proceeded in the time-honored way – vocabulary, declensions, conjugations…..and no answer sheets in sight.  It was years later that Liz learned that Mom had marched directly from the dining room table to the principal’s office where she revealed her wrath over the Latin class debacle and demanded a more competent Latin teacher.

My mother married when she was 21. In the next ten years she had five children. Then there was this long-and-never-understood-by-me pause of  ten years before she gave birth to my brother Joseph, and then two years later,  me.  On the day I was born, my mother was 42.  When “the first five” tell stories about their experiences growing up with Mom, it is almost as if they are talking about someone else for this is not the mother I knew. Yet, at the same time, it is – I just see her through a different lens.

When I was in elementary school, Mom was in her fifties.  Kathy, the girl who lived across the street, had a young mother. One spring day Kathy and I were walking home from school together, and  Kathy had gotten into trouble once too often at  school and dreaded going home to her house to tell her mother. I remember her pleading with me if she could come to my house and talk to my mother first – her reason being “Your Mom listens.” I have noticed myself that women in their fifties are pretty good listeners.

During my high school years, I never saw much physical contact or amorous glances between my parents, who were then in their sixties. However, I saw something else. Shortly after I finished high school, my father was given six months to live due to cancer. I watched my mother nurse him, at home, till the day he died.  She would gently comb his hair, cut his nails, and clean his false teeth for him.  When I close my eyes and try to visualize love – what love really is between a man and a woman – the image that always appears is Mom combing Dad’s hair as he sat in front of the dining room mirror.

I was in my early twenties when I met the man I would marry. Mom had beena widow for several years.  All her married  life, her husband had paid all the bills and taken care of all that stuff – as was the custom for their generation. Upon my father’s death,  Mom had to quickly assume responsibilities that were previously unknown to her. Shortly after my engagement party my mother sat me down at the dining room table, wrote a check out to me for the three thousand dollars left in my father’s will for my wedding,and told me, in so many words, to do it myself. She said it would be a good experience for me as it most certainly was.

I called Mom up on my 35th birthday, moaning about how old I  felt. My mother’s response – “I always loved it when one of my children turned 35. I could finally have an interesting conversation with them.” I took the hint, and quickly changed the subject. Ever since then, when I hear people moaning about how old they are, or bragging about how young they are constantly mistaken for, I  think about my mother’s comment, and  look forward to their reaching  their “35th” birthday and being able to talk about something more interesting.

When I was  42,  the age my mother was when she gave birth to me,  Mom, at 84,  was exactly twice my age. She had suffered a series of ailments and illnesses that had made her feeble, to say the least. The last time she was strong enough to go out for lunch with me, she was far too quiet on the return trip to the nursing home, sitting snext to me  in my car, perhaps wondering if she’d ever go out for lunch again..  Then she said – out of nowhere –  “Susie, never be afraid of anything. Once you give in to fear, it may as well all be over.”

I am blessed to have had an older mother.

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