My mom wasn’t their first child. She was the youngest of seven—she had one sister and five brothers, all of whom, including my mom, were quite musical. One, in fact, sang on Broadway, and another played in numerous orchestras, including Lawrence Welk’s (for those of us old enough to remember Lawrence Welk). Once when I was in high school, I went to a movie at the old Pruneyard cinemas, and all of a sudden, there on the screen, was my uncle. The scene was a high school dance, and my uncle was in the orchestra playing in the background.
Because my mom was born in 1929, her family used to kid her that she helped cause the Great Depression. She didn’t take it too personally, but the Depression had a lasting effect on her. She and her family were poor, very poor. She used to compare her family’s wanderings to that of “the Joads” from John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. My mom used to tell a story about how one day during the Depression, she found a penny lying on the street, which she took back to her mom. So, her mom told her to go out and find a nickel, which she did. And then my grandma told her to go out and find a dime, which she did. I’m not sure how long this went on, but I know my mom tracked down at least a quarter, and while that wasn’t a fortune, it was nothing to sneeze at in the 1930s. The Depression also profoundly affected how my mom viewed money. She always looked for ways to stash some away for a rainy day. And while not all of her strategies succeeded, most did, and that’s why both Brendan and Tara have her to thank for being able to attend the colleges of their dreams.
My mom’s family eventually moved to and settled in Grants Pass, Oregon, which she always considered home. After graduating from Grants Pass High, she first attended Willamette University in Salem, but then after she and my Dad got married, she transferred to the University of Oregon where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Music. To say that she was proud to be a "Duck" would be an understatement. In fact, at the last Oregon football game she attended a few years ago, when the band started playing the Oregon fight song, “Mighty Oregon,” she pushed herself out of her wheel chair so that she could sing and dance and clap along.
Not too long after graduating from Oregon, she and my Dad moved to the Bay Area, and she eventually attended Stanford where she earned a Master’s degree in Education. And her ties to Oregon and Stanford are why I grew up both an Oregon and Stanford football fan and why my least favorite football game of the year is when Stanford and Oregon play.
My mom spent the bulk of her adult life as an elementary school teacher. For the most part, she taught in the Campbell Unified School District, teaching kindergarten at Quito School on Quito Road. However, she also worked as an attendant at the El Rancho Drive-in, started and ran a nursery school in Cambrian Park, and after she retired from teaching, she became a travel agent. Doing that, however, I think was more of an excuse so that she could travel the world, which she did with great abandon. She strolled the grounds of the Taj Mahal, climbed the Great Wall of China, and kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland.
As many people who knew her know, my mom was a bit stubborn—something, she got from her dad. She liked to tell the story of how when her dad was in his 70s, something fell on and crushed his foot. And after the doctor took one look at his foot, he told him that he’d never walk again. At which point, my grandpa swung his legs out of bed, stood up, turned to the doctor and said, “The hell I won’t,” and walked out of the room. My mom was just the same. She never, ever, gave in. She never, ever, believed she wouldn’t succeed. And she never, ever, let others tell her what she couldn’t do.
She didn’t let others beat her down, either. When she was at Willamette, her roommate, who came from upper class stock, considered my mom beneath her. In fact, when my mom would go home for a weekend, her roommate would bundle up all of my mom’s belongings and hide them in a closet so that her friends and family wouldn’t see how poor my mom was. My mom’s roommate also owned a transistor radio. That may not seem like much today, but back then, it was a big deal. And sometimes she would play it when my mom was trying to study or go to sleep. And so one time when my mom asked her to turn it off and she refused, my mom walked across the room, picked up the radio, and threw it out the window. And then there was that time when she took a philosophy class. I can’t remember if it was at Oregon or Stanford. The final consisted of a single question, “What did you learn in this class?” My mom grabbed the test, wrote, “Absolutely nothing,” handed the test back in, and walked out of the room. If you’re wondering, she got an “A” in the class. I never had that kind of guts.
My mom was also proud, so proud, of being Irish. In some ways she reminded me of the dad in the movie, My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. Whenever one of the characters mentioned a word or concept or type of food, he would trace it back to Greece or Greek culture. That’s how my mom felt about Ireland and being Irish. If there was something good or just or honorable or pure, then she believed the Irish probably had something to do with it. My mom genuinely believed that St. Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland and that the Irish really did save civilization. She loved Notre Dame because they were known as the “Fighting Irish” – although it probably helped that Ronald Reagan played the Gipper – and she was convinced that the University of Oregon was really an Irish school because green is one of its primary colors.
My mom was also a huge sports fan. She loved watching her grandkids, Tara and Brendan, play baseball, softball, soccer, and volleyball. And she and my dad never missed a single one of my baseball or football games, at least not until I started spending my summers playing ball in Cape Cod, Alaska, and Canada, but even then, they made quite a few.
And unlike a lot of fans, my mom knew her sports. For the last couple of years, I would usually visit with her on Sunday afternoons, and we’d spend the afternoon watching either the Warriors or Niners or Giants, and even at 90 she could tell the good plays and good calls from the bad plays and bad calls. She didn’t need a Statcast strike zone to know when an umpire missed a call. In fact, back when I played in college, she used to sit right behind home plate and let the umpire know, in no uncertain terms, how well or how poorly he was calling the game. And when I came to the plate for my last at bat in college, and I started digging into the batter’s box, the umpire paused the game and stood up. “Sean,” he said, “I’m going to miss your mom.”
I’m going to miss her too.