On Mothers, Motherhood and Genealogy

My mother, Dorothy Donar Desmond (1911-1970), and her youngest child, Patti Desmond, about 10 months old. Spring 1954 South Haven, Michigan.

Dorothy Donar Desmond (1911-1970), with her youngest child, Patti, 10 months old.
Spring 1954
South Haven, Michigan.

Forty-five years ago today, my mother died.

It was 4:24 pm, Thursday, March 24, 1970. Cause of death: metastatic brain tumor; carcinoma of lung. (Recorded like a true genealogist, right?)

I was 16 years old.

Mom never saw me graduate from high school or college, did not attend my wedding, and never met my children—the last of her twenty-two grandchildren.

I never had an adult conversation with her—woman-to-woman—the kind I now have with my own daughters. I didn’t know her well because—well, I was a kid, and in those days, kids just didn’t talk to their parents about topics they sensed were personal.

Mom certainly didn’t have the opportunity in my first 16 years of life to get to know me as a person—my hopes, my fears, my personality—because my “personhood” had not yet fully developed.

She didn’t live long enough to share my successes; soothe me through disappointments; offer me tips on boys, dating, make-up and fashion; or guide me through my teenage years. That was left up to my dad and brothers, who did the best they could under the circumstances.

Forced to drop out of high school during the Depression, Mom never had the opportunity to shed maternal tears of pride when I stepped off a stage with degree in hand or returned down a church aisle arm-in-arm with my new husband at my side.

She never witnessed any of my personal successes as a professional writer; as a genealogist (most of my research thus far has been on her side of the family); or with my incredible good fortune as the wife of 32 years to Mark Biallas and mother to Meghan and Kelly.

…Which brings me to my mother-in-law, Arlene Eleanor (Boubek) Biallas.

Arlene ("aka Gam") Biallas

Arlene Biallas (aka “Gam”) Summer 2014

I’ll never forget the day (the night, actually) when I met her in August of 1982. Mark and I had been dating just a few weeks when, on the spur-of-the-moment, he decided to stop by his mom’s house to introduce me to the family. She was 48 years old—just two years older than my oldest sister—and I was 29.

She was adorned that night in a pink snap front housecoat and rollers in her golden blonde hair. Immediately after greeting me, she began dashing about their modest living room, dusting off end tables, straightening up magazines and adjusting slipcovers on the chairs to make the place “presentable” to her son’s new girlfriend.

August 1982, on the night I was first introduced to my future mother-in-law.

August 1982, on the night I was first introduced to my future mother-in-law.

I was completely smitten—with HER. With a woman—a mom—so young and attractive and energetic, even if she was depicting the 50s era housewife she truly was, making sure the place was spotless for her eventual daughter-in-law.

I had 16 years with my own mother—much of it as a young child. But I’ve had more than twice as long—over 32 years—with Arlene, better known now in the family as “Gam.” (It’s a name she was christened with by her firstborn grandchild, because Meghan just  couldn’t quite pronounce the word “Grandma” yet.)

Thirty-two years to get to know and love a new mom, sister, and eventually, friend. A woman who—though she never guided me through boys, dating, make-up and fashion—did get me through the early years of marriage, home ownership and child rearing. A woman who (carefully) offered tips on cooking, homemaking, and household purchases when she saw I struggled with them—a role she was well prepared for in 1952 as President of the Home Ec Club at Oak Park-River Forest High School.

“Did you know, Patti, that when you want to rinse caked-on egg yolk off a plate you should use cold water, not hot, because the hot water will just smear it more?” (I told you her tips were gentle.)

She was the Mother of the Groom but I, too, quickly claimed her as the Mother of the Bride, as well.

August 20, 1983, when I was gifted with  a mother once again.

August 20, 1983, when I was gifted with a mother once again.

What fun we both had in those early days as she helped me pick out china, attend dress fittings, and fill out seating charts for a wedding reception. The greatest gift she ever gave me (after that of her son, of course) was given the day she sat on the back steps of Kiki’s Bridal Boutique located in an old Victorian home in Algonquin, Illinois, after my last dress fitting.

She took a final drag on her last Winston, and vowed to stop smoking cold turkey so she’d “be around for her kids and grandkids.”

She was 49 years old at the time and had been smoking for thirty years. She did stop smoking, too—just as she had promised—and three weeks ago, Gam celebrated her 81st birthday.

After my wedding in 1983, her role progressed from Mother of the Bride, to Mother of the Newlywed, to Mother of the soon-to-be Homeowner, and—eventually—to Mother of the soon-to-be New Mom.

Her eyes lit up as she purchased baby clothes, planned baby showers and christenings, and helped me hang new curtains in the baby’s room. And when those bundles of baby bliss arrived, she took great pride in “demonstrating” how to bathe my babies—and I let her—even though I’d already mastered that skill.

Gam with her eldest son Mark, and her grandchildren, Meghan and Kelly Biallas. October 31, 1997.

Gam with her eldest son Mark, and her grandchildren, Meghan and Kelly Biallas. October 31, 1997.

As my girls navigated the years as toddlers, pre-schoolers, and early grade schoolers, she never missed an event: first day, last day, grandparents day—whatever.

She was there for them all—every birthday, ballet recital, and softball game. She even scored a home run for the parents’ side when an end-of-season game pitted the Purple Parrots against the parents in a “just-for-fun” season finale followed up by a pizza party at Papa Passero’s.

The annual sorting of Halloween candy after a successful haul.

The annual sorting of Halloween candy after a successful haul.

And every 31st of October—without fail—for 12 years, she came to our house for Halloween, walking the neighborhood with her costume-clad granddaughters as they begged for goodies throughout the neighborhood.

When they all got home and the loot was reviewed, the girls generously (and very ceremoniously) offered their Baby Ruths—Gam’s favorite candy bar—to their one and only grandma as payment for her loyalty on this apex of children’s holidays.

And, of course, Gam always bought the kids’ Girl Scout cookies—far too many boxes than she could ever consume, which could be found deep in her freezer for months thereafter.

Gam and her granddaughter, Meg Biallas, graduation Day, Butler University, May 2010.

Gam and her granddaughter, Meg Biallas, Graduation Day, Butler University, May 2010.

And NO grandmother—none, I tell you—could have possibly been prouder to attend her two granddaughters’ college graduations a few years ago from Butler University, Indianapolis, IN and Ripon College, Ripon, WI.

Gam with her granddaughter, Kelly Biallas at Ripon College, Graduation Day, 2011.

Gam with her granddaughter, Kelly Biallas at Ripon College, Graduation Day, 2011.

Gam’s most treasured memory of all with her granddaughters though, she’s often proclaimed, is of our trip to Disneyworld when the kids were 8 and 9 years old. “That was the greatest moment of my life!” she’s exclaimed more than once. (But then Gam always speaks in superlatives until the next “greatest” or “most beautiful” event in her life comes along.)

Rain could not erase the smile on Gam's face for her once in a lifetime trip to Disneyworld in 1997.

Rain could not erase the smile on Gam’s face for her once in a lifetime trip to Disneyworld in 1997.

As the girls got older and were in school all day, Gam and I took that opportunity, without kids underfoot, to go on our own mother-daughter field trips–going shopping, out to lunch or to check out the latest offerings at the the local used bookstore. Eventually, our connection as mutual moms morphed into a full blooded friendship.

We traded paperbacks—even a few racy ones. She got me hooked on LaVyrle Spencer (a romance writer). I got her hooked on Patricia Cornwell (murder and suspense). She offered suggestions on home decorating. I edited her resume, which enabled her to nail her last job—a job she secured at 66 years of age and retained for 14 years until the age of 80 when she was diagnosed last fall with ALS.

Also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” ALS is a neuromuscular disease quite rare in 80 year olds, and it’s progressed very rapidly in Gam.

In January, she was forced to move out of her home of 50 years and now resides in a skilled nursing facility where she’s attended to by nursing staff around-the-clock. Today she’s completely paralyzed and is weeks (if not days) away from totally losing her voice. Marie, her hospice nurse, tells us that soon her breathing will be compromised, and she’ll most likely need to be sedated to make her as comfortable as possible as she passes from this life to the next.

When I visited with Gam last Sunday night, she whispered haltingly but directly, of her impending death: worrying and wondering what lies ahead. We talked of heaven and her predecessors who have gone there before her: her beloved parents, Eleanor and Charlie;  her grandparents; and even my parents, too.

I asked her to look them up when she arrives—Gerry and Dorothy Desmond who died 36 and 45 years ago in 1970 and 1979. I asked her to introduce herself to them, and to fill them in on all she’s enjoyed on their behalf with their mutual granddaughters during her time here on earth.

She promised to do just that and I know that she will—after all, 33 years ago she vowed to stop smoking so she could be there for her kids and grandkids, and she certainly followed through on that promise.

It’s an odd place I find myself in right now as I reconcile being a professional genealogist who, in a detached way, notes birth, marriage and death dates of  ancestors, with losing a woman I know and love who’s on the threshold of her final days—a woman who’s been a surrogate mom—no, a real mom—to me, for the past 32 years.

The day will soon come though, when I’ll have to add the final date for her name to the Biallas family chart.

But clearly, family trumps genealogical recordkeeping in this case, for Arlene—Gam—will forever be more than just another name and a few dates on my family tree.

Peace be with you, Mom.

…and Godspeed.

___

  Copyright © 2015 Patricia Desmond Biallas

___

Note to my readers:

This is my first post since November of last year when Arlene was diagnosed with ALS. Personal demands related to her care and comfort forced me to take an unplanned sabbatical. Only now, have I had the opportunity to get back to my genealogical research and writing. Thank you to all of my readers for staying with me on yet another phase of my own personal GeneaJourney.

PDB

 

Posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Photo Stories | 22 Comments

An Overdue Salute to an Unsung Hero

George Donar U.S. Coast Guard 1929

George Donar
U.S. Coast Guard
1929

There’s a pair of photos in the family album of my uncle, George Donar, which as a child, I could never quite figure out.

In the studio portrait, he’s a very young man–a boy really–dressed in a sailor’s uniform. In the other—a snapshot taken more than a decade later—he’s dressed in a light colored Army uniform, dark jacket and cap, standing proudly it seems, in front of an Army tank.

As kids in the early 1960s, my brothers and I knew little about our mom’s older brother.

All we really knew was that many decades after those photos were taken—well after his return to civilian life—every few years he’d hop the Greyhound in Chicago and travel to Kalamazoo for a visit, sharing Pall Malls and a bit of wine at the dining room table with Mom.

Heads bent, they’d talk together for hours on end, in the kind of hushed undertones that kids innately know mean the grown-ups want to be left alone.

We obliged.

George Donar U.S. Army 1942-1945

George Donar
U.S. Army
1942-1945

Uncle George never said much to us kids, though. He ignored us, really. I don’t ever remember getting hugged or kissed, or even being spoken to or acknowledged by him. It didn’t offend me, though. It just made me more curious about this person who clearly meant something to Mom.

After a few days, George would head back to Chicago by Greyhound once again ‘til his next visit a few years later when the quiet conversations between the pair at the dining room table would resume once again.

The visits stopped after Mom died in 1970; and a few years later he passed away as well.

Since Uncle George had no other immediate relatives nearby, my older brother Gerry—in his mid 20s by then—was assigned the duty of taking a train to Chicago to handle my uncle’s final arrangements. Our only mementos of him were those two photos and a small trunk containing a few odds and ends collected over a lifetime that George felt were important enough to save. Gerry brought the trunk back from Chicago and put it up in the attic in the house on Hawley Street where it remained for years until our family eventually moved away. Whatever became of that trunk and its contents is still unknown.

Fast forward, forty plus years when this genealogist finally got around to pursuing the mystery of the man in those military photos. Documents obtained last month from the National Archives in St. Louis, along with research on the Donar family here in Chicago, helped clear up, at least a bit of the mystery, of the man known as Uncle George.

It seems that the first photo was taken when he joined the Coast Guard in March of 1929. He was discharged after just seven months of service though—15 days after his father’s death in October of ’29, and three days before Black Tuesday—the dawn of the Great Depression. His discharge was the result of a hardship request to the government made by my grandmother, citing herself as a dependent parent with no other means of support.

George had been earning $21 a month as an Apprentice Seaman in the Coast Guard, but in civilian life, he earned three times that amount in his job as an “office boy” for a title company in Chicago’s Loop downtown. It was the kind of income his mother came to  depend upon for her very survival during the Depression years that followed.

Though it must have been a tremendous disappointment for 21-year-old George to give up what he hoped would be a life of adventure as a seaman in the U.S. Coast Guard, he had no idea his greatest days in the military still lay ahead.

Over a decade later—in 1942 to be exact—he joined the military again. This time he enlisted in the U.S. Army for a three year stint as a member of Company A, 714th Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division.  It was a duty that brought George and his fellow “Hellcats” to the front lines of some of the fiercest battles on German soil—ultimately winning them recognition in April of 1945, for liberating the Kaufering concentration camps.

We’d never heard about George’s military feats from him or from our mother. For all we know, Mom wasn’t even aware of her brother’s military accomplishments during World War II—which of course, just adds to the mystery.

After the war George returned to Chicago. Little is known about his life in the years that followed, but we do know that he never married or had children of his own. As far as we knew, George lived a modest life after the war as a bartender in a neighborhood tavern somewhere on Chicago’s West side–just one of so many quiet heroes of that generation whose story had been left untold until some digging eventually brought it to light.

So…here’s to you, George Donar: Veteran of two branches of the U.S. military, whose service during World War II is still being felt today–felt by the descendants of those you helped free from those concentration camps almost 70 years ago…

…A long overdue Veteran’s Day salute to one among many unsung American heroes whose song can finally be sung.

Hear, Hear!

 _______

To learn more about the U.S. Army’s 12th Armored Division and its actions during World War II,  please visit its official website which contains a membership list, photos, videos, oral histories, a timeline, book recommendations, and much, much more: http://www.12tharmoredmuseum.com/

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 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Chicago History, Family Legends, Military | 8 Comments

Part 2: When History and Family History Intersect

In my last post I shared a fascinating newspaper tidbit from 1901 from the Jackson (Michigan) Patriot on my aunt Grace Desmond (1891-1972). It mentioned that she was a “child wonder” and “musical prodigy” at the age of 8 who had played on numerous occasions at the home of Carter Harrison II, Chicago’s mayor at the time.

Jackson  (Michigan) Patriot August 23, 1901

Jackson (Michigan) Patriot
August 23, 1901

It took me awhile to get past my astonishment at this unusual, yet true, story about a member of my own family whom I actually remember from my childhood.  Once I did though,  I went on to review some of the other news items on that same page which, as it turns out, proved to be equally fascinating, and clearly products of their historical time.

Take this, for instance, on the Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England:

Second Lady

courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Baroness Burdett-Coutts of England in her younger days. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. Washington, D.C.)

 

 

 

 

Don’t you just love that last line? She was acquainted with William IV (an ancestor, no doubt); was a friend of Dickens (I’m presuming  British author, Charles Dickens); and expended over $1,000,000 in charity. (That’s a lot of  bucks in 1901!)

Elsewhere on the page with Aunt Grace’s mention is this bit of royal gossip related to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and her hubby who wed earlier that year.  Seems the queen-mother was none too happy with her new son-in-law’s spending habits:

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands on her wedding day, 7 February 1901

Wilhelmina

 

 

 

 

 

And how about this for all you female meteorologists out there today?  You can thank Mrs. L. H. Grenewald for paving the way for you. (It’s a shame we don’t know her first name, however.)

meteorologistIt also seems that despite her renown in the “scientific circles of Europe,” her credentials as President of the Woman’s National Science Club, and her overall experience in the field of meteorology, her beloved manages to show up in this news item as  sheriff of  York County, PA after the Civil War.  (Ahem…and what’s that got to do with her accomplishments?!)

My favorite news item on this page, however, is the  following.  It manages to combine  details on the resignation of Mrs. Marguerite Coleman, a 27-year veteran of the Treasury Department, with how she personally saved the life of  William H. Seward (President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State), on the fateful day Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  It then winds up tossing in a little harmless nepotism at the end of the story when it indicates Mrs. Coleman’s position would be filled by her very own niece.

William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of  Google Images)

William H. Seward,  (1801-1872) Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln (Courtesy of Google Images)

Treasury

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I was impressed with Aunt Grace–the  child wonder and musical prodigy–who entertained at the home of  a Chicago mayor at the turn of the last century. Amazing what else you can find in those old newspaper clippings to put your ancestor’s story into context!

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 Copyright © 2014 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Biographies, Civil War, Family Legends | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments