80 Years in 8 Days – A Birthday Project for My Mother

“My sainted mother” (as Gene Kelly used to say of his) is turning 80 on New Year’s Eve.  She is a couple of thousand miles away in California; I am living in Milwaukee missing the sunshine of her warm personality.  How shall I celebrate her life from this distance?  I came upon an idea: post a blog entry every day from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve containing 10 things I appreciate about her.  By her birthday, she will have read 80 reasons that I am so grateful for her long life. 

I have decided to start out with “10 Background Bits”, pieces of factual information to set the stage for her “close up”.  First, there is a family history for this kind of project.  When my father turned 60, I presented him with a little typed booklet entitled “60 Memories of My Father”.  The cover was made out of construction paper.  It looked a bit like a school assignment for a 3rd grader, I admit.  But it was made with love.  My father ended up writing his own memoirs 8 years later in response to interview questions I sent him.  2 years after that, he began his mysterious journey into dementia and Alzheimer’s.  For my mother’s 70th birthday, I wrote “!70 Foods 70!”, an anthology of food memories with pictures.  (She is a fabulous gourmet cook.) My mother keeps that in a binder, each page engulfed in a separate plastic sheath.  It looks a lot more professional than my first attempt. (She is also a museum archivist.)  So this birthday project is one of a much-beloved series that has enriched me in the recollection and writing of it and, hopefully, enriched my parents in the receiving.

2) Time: Anne Louise was born December 31, 1934 – a blessed little tax deduction for her folks that year and their first child.  My kids now know her as “Granne Louise”.

3) Place: Fair Lawn, New Jersey. 

4) Mother: Marion Keeffe McFarland.  A tiny spitfire of a personality, ambitious and shrewd, a capable survivor with a twinkle in her step.  My mother and I both wore her long bridal veil when we were married.  The secret she carried to her grave: she never got beyond the 8th grade in school.

grandma Marion5) Father: David Elmer McFarland, Jr.  He was an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey.  His stateside responsibilities kept him home during WWII, keeping the power running, managing 5 Victory Gardens, and being husband and father.  My mother adored her father: he was the calming antidote to her mother’s small furies and mini dramas, a grounding presence with a refreshing sense of humor.  I think I heard once that he played the piano at a nickelodeon… I believe it, anyway.

grandpa David6) Her younger sister, Sandy.  Actually, her name is Marion like her mother, but her nickname distinguishes her.  Her blonde hair, petite frame and bubbly personality came back to my mother’s mind often when I was in her view, since I was the only blonde and the youngest of her 4 daughters.  Sandy was much like her mother: tiny and very social.  My mother was more like her father: lanky and cerebral. 

7) My mother’s natural strengths: precocious and enduring intelligence, musical talent, organization. 

8) Her natural weakness: her eyes.  She was finally diagnosed with myopia and ambliopia at age 5, and wore an eye patch and glasses.  Her walleye makes for poor depth perception, but it gives her the peripheral vision that kept me from sneaking anything past her…ever. 

star9) Growing up: my mother’s stories of growing up sound to me like echoes from an early TV sitcom — pin-setting at the bowling alley for a penny a pin to earn spending money, which was then spent at the movies, often for a double feature; learning to drive on a dirt road around the town’s water tower with her boyfriend, Duff; keeping statistics for the school baseball team and flirting with the players; trips to New York City every year, where her Aunt would buy her a new coat.  Happy days, it would seem. 

10) Becoming an adult: because she skipped a year of school and her birthday’s so late in the year, my mother headed off to college at the tender age of 16.  And not just any college — Radcliffe College.  Her mother had two goals for her: either meet a rich man and marry, or get a first rate education so that you can support yourself.  My mother got both the man and the education.  She graduated in May of 1955, earning a B. A. in English with her thesis on Jane Austen.  She married George William Heigho (Harvard ’55) in September that same year. 

1955bFor a writing class 3 years ago, I was prompted to write my parents’ wedding announcement.  Mom, always a sharp editor, made sure I got it right:

Anne Louise McFarland and George William Heigho II were married September 3, 1955 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, New Jersey.  The bride is a graduate of Radcliffe College, and the groom is a Harvard graduate.  The couple met at the Canterbury Club on campus during their sophomore year.  Mrs. Heigho is the daughter of Marion Keeffe and David Elmer McFarland, Jr. of Fair Lawn, New Jersey.  Her father is an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey.  The groom is the son of Dorothy Lauver and William Stephens Heigho of Detroit, Michigan.  His grandfather, George William Heigho I, was the president and CEO of Calvert Lithographing company.  The couple will be sailing to England on the Nieuw Amsterdam for their honeymoon, returning in a month to their new home in Boston.  Mr. Heigho will then begin work with IBM.”

This portion of the birthday project also serves as a traditional Christmas Eve ghost story.  The spirits of my Grandpa, Grandma, and father are affectionately internalized in my mother now.  I’m sure she holds many more as well – notably (to me) my sister and my husband.  The lives of friends, family, entertainers, neighbors, writers, thinkers and even fictional characters seem to animate her with exuberant ideas of connection.  Conversation with her is peppered with the anecdotes of a host of souls.  

Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and that chapter of 80 Years in 8 Days is dedicated to “10 Family Foods”.  My mother’s table is the holiday feast I dream of every year.  While visions of it dance in my head, I wish you, Mom, and dear readers, a Good Night.    

5 thoughts on “80 Years in 8 Days – A Birthday Project for My Mother

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Mom! | scillagrace

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