When Mom passed away on Sunday morning, one of the many kind nurses at the hospital said, “I am sorry for your loss.” I was sad, but in those very spiritual moments after Mom was just getting to heaven, I felt more at peace than sad. I also felt an over powering feeling of gratitude. I had had two wonderful parents for well over 50 years. I had a mother who loved me. She told me so, and I will never forget how much she loved us all. I kissed her goodbye, then put my cheek against hers and held it there. As I moved away, she said her last words. “You need a shave,” then she laughed through her pain.
What defines a good life? Work? What you save, or collect? What is it, that each of us can look back on, that defines our life, one thing that has been consistent from childhood? For Virginia Mary Donovan Allen, wife of James for 60 years, mother of Jane, John, James, Christine, Robert, Lucille, grandmother of 13, and great grandmother of 4, it is an easy answer. Her life centered on maintaining conscious contact with God in spite of what stood in the way. That defined her life, and the way she left it. She fought faithfully to the end.
Mom was proud of her Irish-Catholic roots in Boston. She was proud to be a Democrat, and loved John Kennedy. She liked the Red Sox and Ted Williams. She watched the series this year, and was happy when the Sox won. Her home was New England, and she missed it. She graduated from Girls High School in Boston in 1937, when she was only 16 years old. She liked to hear the names of the towns and the streets, and I called her when in Boston, just so I could say them to her. Chelsea, The Back Bay, West Roxbury, Chestnut Hill, Mass Ave, the Cape, Tremont Street and Hackensack Road, where she grew up, where she was married, and where she had her first four children. It is where her parents, John and Mary Ellen Donovan, and sisters, Ruth and Lucille, were born, and where her grandparents landed when they came from Ireland. It is where she met our father, James Ross Allen when he returned from the war.
Mom told me she hoped to go back to Boston twice more. Jane’s son, John’s wedding is this weekend in Massachusetts. She said she wanted to go to her grandson Sam’s graduation from engineering school in Worcester, Massachusetts this spring.
Mom always had hope, and it was through God that Mom found hope, both in life and in the face death. She was afraid, but her fear passed as she made her final peace with God. She knew that she was ready to face Him, and with whom she is now, in peace and without pain. Mom suffered for most of this year. Jay, Lucille, Bob, and especially Christine sat with her, and helped her week after week. Mom’s good neighbor, Elvis McCann, was helping us move a few of Mom’s things a day or so ago. He told Lucille and me that sometimes those of us who are loved the most suffer most, to prepare the way for those who remain. He said, maybe it is God’s way of getting us prepared, to be grateful when they are finally relieved of pain. That helped.
When we talked during one of our last conversations, Mom asked about my own spiritual values and strength. Once again, she wasn’t thinking of herself. For her, and myself, I will renew those values she tried so hard to instill in all her children. Oh, she was clucked a bit when I told her about the small Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, and how I liked it. She did seem pleased, however, that I attend church and pray. She asked if I bring a sense of spiritual values to my own son. I promised to do more. I consider it to be one of my failures in life. She wasn’t just talking to me as she said these things. She was talking to all of us, because she knew I was going to write this down. Hope, in times that seem hopeless, centers on faith, and, as Mom would say, seeking peace through God. That is a lesson we might all try to remember, Mom, as we think of you. When there was no hope for life, she had hope for eternal life with God. We also know you live on in us, and we will cherish what you taught us, and did for us. She knew that her great granddaughter, Lillian Virginia Allen was born just two weeks ago in Sacramento, and was pleased to hear her name.
There is another important lesson from Mom. She was frugal. I don’t think she ever wasted a dime. She invested wisely, and did well. Mom wasted neither money nor time. She recently started a small investment contest with her children. Each could buy and sell stock, with everyone’s results posted each day by Jay. The results, as of last week, were no surprise. Mom was in the lead by a fair margin, and had been in the lead from wire to wire.
She managed the money in the house for over 60 years. She raised six children, and like many other women from her generation, did most of the work without a lot of help. She moved her family more times than I care to count. She bought and sold at least eight houses but managed to live in one house, one home, here in Roseville for nearly thirty years. She moved our family from the US to Germany in 1960, and back. Mom rarely asked for help. In the last year of her life, she depended heavily on Bob, Christine, Lucille, and Jay. They each unselfishly gave a lot of themselves to help her.
Virginia was a good friend, and a devoted friend. Her friends called her Ginny. She had a Christmas card list that has only added people for years. She met with her best friend, Odrene Reagan, when the family gathered in New Hampshire to celebrate Mom’s 80th birthday. She had known Odrene since they were pals in Girls High School in Boston in the 1930’s, and always loved one another. They were so much fun to listen to! They acted like the girls they were so many, many years ago.
I remember when we had only one car in the 1950’s. Mothers really stayed home then. I think Mom went out shopping just once a week until 1959 when, for the first time, we got a second car. On Saturday morning, she and Jane took off, loaded up with groceries, and Mom made them last. On Sunday, every Sunday, we all went to Mass and communion, girls in dresses, and boys in matching suits and ties. We came home, and had Sunday dinner together. It was just done that way. St. Anne’s Church in Groesebeck, Ohio and the Catholic school were at the center of our early family life. On Fridays, we ate fish. One Friday, Dad brought a Protestant home. He brought a bologna sandwich, not wanting to eat fish with the Catholics. Mom made him eat it on the porch.
As I look back on her life, I admire how she lived. She kept her life rather simple. She collected things; Hummel’s, plates, coins. She was a great dancer. We loved to watch Mom and Dad dance. They were great together. For 50 years, she had a bird feeder near the windows. She was a good cook, and always had a leg of lamb and a cheesecake for me when I came to visit from some far off place. She was an avid reader, always ready to trade a book with a friend. She played bridge, and was good at it, and loved winning a few cents from her friends. She learned to use a computer in her late 70’s. She played online bridge, balanced her checkbook, sent emails, and found a few web sites she liked. She somehow managed to ruin a few computers, and cried when she had to do without them as Christine or Lucille fixed them or got new ones. Mom had pictures of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the house. Mom kept order in all she did. She did the crossword puzzle every single day for as long as I can remember. She never left the house with a dirty dish in the sink, and never woke up to last night’s dishes. Not once. Mom was a good story-teller. She loved to talk about her life as a young woman in Boston during the war, when she worked at the C. E. Fay Company and even told a story or two about her boyfriends, like the rich guy that owned the pecan ranch in Georgia she could have married. It was like listening to history.
I understand, however, one bit of frustration she lived with. Mom, I think, was brilliant. She never had much of a chance to use that gift outside the house, and I think it bothered her. Dad knew how smart she was, and knew she was smarter than he was. Now that she is at peace, I think she would ask those of you who have the same gift, to do your best, but keep hope and God at the center of your life.
I told Mom how I would write this, and that it would be about hope and her conscious contact with God. She was in a hospital bed, with hardly single possession of her own. Mom reached into the pocket of her hospital gown and handed me this Catholic Devotional given to her by her friend, Barbara Turner, also from this church, who helped her more than she will ever know through her last days. Her help also gave our family a measure of comfort. It is fitting that Mom valued this book so much, and gave it to me to use to write this.
I think Mom would want me to keep this short. Sorry, Mom, I didn’t. She never wanted to be a bother to anyone, and I suppose she would want us to get on with life. And as we do, love one another a little bit more. I think, however, she would like it if we end with a prayer from this book.
Let Us Pray
Grant that we beseech you, O Lord God, that your servant Virginia Mary Allen may enjoy perpetual health of soul and body; and by the glorious intersession of the Blessed Mary ever virgin, may be delivered from sorrow and pain and rejoice in eternal happiness through Christ, our Lord. Amen