My sister Laura was struggling to convince my 91-year-old mother that she hadn’t been at a party in Ireland the night before. They were sitting at the breakfast bar in my sister Martha’s sunny kitchen in Northbrook, my mother recounting what fun she’d had at a family reunion in Cork. Someone had given her a microphone, and she shook her index finger at an admiring crowd. “Never,” she told them, “never give up on your children.” Even though she’d had a wonderful time at the party, she was having some day-after remorse. “Maybe I had acted a little too proud.”
“I’m sure you were fine,” Laura said. “But, Mom, do you remember showing your passport to anyone last night?”
“My passport? Aha! You might be right. Maybe I did dream it.”
It was more than just a dream. She’d been hallucinating for 12 hours.
My mother’s limited but fulfilling social life came to a screeching halt in March 2020. When COVID struck, she lost her volunteer position handing out songbooks and missalettes before Mass at Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook. Instead, she was stuck at home watching Cardinal Cupich’s Mass on TV. I couldn’t take her to lunch anymore. I couldn’t have tea with her in the kitchen. I’d rush in, masked, with her groceries and hurry out the door. Her older sister, who lived in a nursing home, died of COVID in early April of that year. Her children couldn’t hold the traditional wake and funeral Mass, which made the loss even more difficult.
My siblings and I began to worry that the near-total isolation was causing her anxiety and depression. When a neurologist prescribed an antidepressant, we agreed to give it a whirl. But my mother, a lifelong teetotaler, started to hallucinate. She thought she saw little children, she mistook a lamp for a scary bald man, and we would ultimately spend over 24 hours convincing her that she hadn’t, in fact, had a fabulous time in Ireland.
As the drugs wore off, she settled into a reminiscent state of mind. My siblings and I had decided that she shouldn’t be left alone in her condo, so I relieved Laura — she had taken our mother in during her hallucinations — and stayed with Mom the night after her imagined trip to Ireland. After a light dinner, we loaded the dishwasher together, and she told me some familiar stories of her childhood on the South Side. Her parents were Irish immigrants, and her family stories had always had a romantic, urban ring. She’d talk about how on hot summer days, my grandmother would shoo her 10 children out the door to roam the Museum of Science and Industry, which was free at the time. Or how my aunts would camp out overnight on the 63rd Street Beach sporting satin bathing suits. But on this evening, the waning effects of the medicine seemed to unlock memories that she’d never shared with me before. My mother’s tone was softer, dreamier. I slipped my iPhone onto the counter and started to record her.
“I didn’t get to go to the world’s fair,” she said. “Daddy took the older kids. The paper had a contest that if you dressed up like a comics character, you could get in for free. One of my sisters went as Tillie the Toiler. So they all left for the streetcar, and I was trailing along behind. I heard someone say, ‘Don’t go past that gate, Dolores!’ but I was sneaking along, anyway, trying to catch up.”
“Wait,” I said, doing the math in my head. “This was in 1933. You were 4 years old.” Or 5, if it was the summer of ’34. I tried to picture her running down the hot Maryland Avenue sidewalk in Woodlawn, trailing her seven older siblings. I slyly inched my phone a little closer, because I always love when her stories connect to public events.
“Yes, and all of a sudden my foot started to hurt. I looked down. I had left my shoes in the backyard. I’d gone crashing across the porch, and a sliver got stuck in my bare foot. I cried and ran back home.”
Certainly my mother didn’t know the particulars of the Century of Progress Exposition, held on what’s now Northerly Island. She just didn’t want to be left behind. As the eighth of nine children myself, I understood that feeling.
“But I always tell everyone,” she continued, “I wouldn’t trade growing up in that family for any amount of money. We had such good times and bad times. I mean, the first bad thing was Daddy going.”
By “going,” she meant dying. In the past, when my mom had talked about her father, she usually shared funny stories about how he’d forbid his children to sing at the dinner table by saying, “Stop the jiggin’!” Or how, when her older brothers acted out, he’d banish them to the kitchen by shaking his fist and saying, “I’ll send you up the road.” I’d heard many times about how he’d wanted her to go to college to become a teacher. But I had only a vague sense of how he died, when she was 14, of an infection of some sort. I knew it was sudden, but I never felt comfortable drawing out more details. That evening, standing on the opposite side of her L-shaped kitchen counter, I didn’t want to probe, afraid my questions might suppress the surfacing memories. The refrigerator rattled, and I saw that the dishwasher door was still open behind her. She looked down at the empty stainless steel sink. I waited. She shook her head and looked back up at me.
“That night was the first time I heard my mother cry,” she said, her voice dropping. She looked down again, shaking her head. “Mom had been at the hospital all day. And she came in, and I heard her crying. My parents’ bedroom was just a little farther down the hall from Betty’s and mine. I had never heard my mother cry like that before. So I knew. I knew he was gone. Nobody had to tell me.”
I wanted to ask, Who did tell you? I pictured Betty and her holding each other. It must have been such a lonely moment, to learn the news through the sound of her strong-as-an-ox mother sobbing. The mantra in my family has always been “Get over it!” or “It won’t kill ya!” My grandmother left Ireland to escape rural poverty and an unpleasant stepmother. She’d lost her own mother young. She sailed to America at age 17. She bore 10 children. She was a fierce and funny force who didn’t suffer fools gladly. To hear her crying must have shaken Betty and Dolores to their bones.
“Daddy always told my mother, ‘Catherine, Dolores should go to college,’ ” she continued, a hint of my grandfather’s brogue in her voice as she imitated him. She looked left, avoiding my eyes. I had heard her tell this before, but never with such sorrow. “You never know what the next day is going to bring. You try to be ready for it. But I always wished that Daddy had lived to see all his grandchildren — and his daughter Dolores becoming a teacher.”
She never did, though. Later Mom found out that some of the girls from her class went to Chicago Teachers College for free. “It was called the Normal School in Englewood. But I didn’t know about it,” my mother explained. “And after Daddy died, by the time I was 16, I wanted to work. I got an after-school job at Woolworth’s down on 63rd Street. I turned my paycheck over to my mother to help out.”
Hard times had followed my grandfather’s death. They lost their home, and my grandmother took a job in the workers’ cafeteria at Marshall Field’s on State Street. I wondered if my mother realized at that moment everything they were losing, that her father’s dream of her being a teacher, going to college, was slipping away with my grandmother’s tears. But I didn’t want to ask right then.
Carrying on, supporting yourself and your family, putting on a brave face — these are the Falvey family battle cries. We absorbed those messages, because basic survival doesn’t give you much time to grieve. But my mother’s drug-induced candor brought home the reality that a brave face is just a mask, albeit one she wore for decades. I wondered who she turned to in her sorrow, since her own mother had to swiftly pivot and carry on.
I’ve often heard my mother say, “We were gypped, losing our father.” That word is, of course, considered offensive today, but it also has a childlike ring to it. I like that she uses such a simple verb to capture how her father’s death felt to her at 14 and still feels to her today. You could understand that life was unfair and full of surprises — and you could also resent that. Wrestling with those contradictions might just be the essence of living.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, Mom was back to her old self. Over breakfast, she discussed politics and family affairs, movies and books, with her usual sharp perceptions and empathy. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember what she’d told me. I was too scared to ask.