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 diploma 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 (

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 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 her future grandkids.”

She was 49 years old at the time and had been smoking for 30 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 for me progressed from Mother of the Bride, to Mother of the Newlywed, to Mother of the New Homeowner, and—eventually—to Mother of the soon-to-be New Mom.

Gam and Kelly, 6 months old, September 1989.

Gam and Kelly, 6 months old, September 1989.

Her eyes lit up as she purchased baby clothes, planned baby showers and christenings, and helped me hang 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 when I’d already mastered that skill.

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.

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.

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 straight,  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, in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Ripon College, in Ripon, Wisconsin.

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 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 1979 and 1970. 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 her future 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.



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22 Responses to On Mothers, Motherhood and Genealogy

  1. Lorene says:

    What a lovely and touching testimonial, Pat. Your love for Arlene shines throughout. The best you’ve ever written.
    Peace be with you, too.

  2. Rebecca Black says:

    What a lovely connection!

  3. Mark Biallas says:

    Patti, this post really touched my heart…I’m tearing up again, as I reply to this post. Thank you, you’re the best.

  4. Patricia, what a tender remembrance of both the moms in your life. Yes, it will be hard to fill in that date beyond the dash–but it’s the dash that holds the most of life’s meaning.

    My prayers are with you and your family’s precious Gam.

    • Thank you so much, Jacqui. And what a wonderful way for all of us genealogists to think of that often overlooked dash, for you are right: that dash actually represents life itself for the person to whom it refers.

  5. Debi Austen says:

    Here I sit with tears flowing – what a beautiful tribute to both of your mothers. ALS is a horrible, horrible disease and I’m so sorry Gam and your family are going through this.

    • Thanks so much, Debi. We are all so grateful ALS didn’t strike Gam at a much younger age though, as it does in most others who get this disease–a silver lining that enabled Gam to truly enjoy her grandchildren’s growing up years and enabled me to have a mom once again.

  6. Cathy Panozzo says:

    Pat, you are something else. What a great testament to your family. You have such a comfortable way with words–words that touch my heart and bring a tear to my eye.

  7. Nancy Cooper says:

    Arlene and I met years ago before her beloved husband, Karl, passed. We belonged to a bunco club along with her dearest friend, Shirley Bloom, who was the mother of a friend of mine. We had such fun in those years! I happened to call her one day and she was very upset as she had lost her job and was feeling a bit useless. As luck would have it, there was an opening for help at my workplace. She got the job and was extremely happy in her new position. I had the pleasure of working with her for all those past 14 years. We were all devastated when we heard the news of her disease. She always spoke so highly of you Patti, as you were one of her own. Her sons, their spouses and her grandchildren were her pride and joy. Her love for you all is beyond measure. This is an amazing testimony to her. May God give you all the strength you need to carry you all through. Jesus, welcome this dear one into your arms with compassion and comfort when the time comes.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Nancy. She spoke of you often to us, as well. She so loved her job, friends and family. I think we were all one beautiful world to her. I know both God (and Karl!) will welcome her into their arms when that day arrives.

  8. Susan Clark says:

    Pat, this is a perfectly beautiful tribute to your mothers. What a blessing Arlene has been to you. Surely you have been an equal blessing to her.

    • She has been a blessing to me, Susan and I know that as the mother of four sons, Gam was overjoyed to finally welcome me as a daughter into the Biallas family. So glad God gave her a couple of grand-daughters right away to dote on as well.

  9. Lynne (Cousino) Smith says:

    Oh my…truly a beautiful testimony. God has certainly blessed you with this gift of writing. His plan for your family was all in play from day one, too. Life is so precious and goes by so fast… Thank you for sharing your life with all of us.. and your talents. Love you.

    • Thanks so much, Lynne. And to think that you undoubtedly met Arlene 33 years ago when you played the music at our wedding. Glad you could see through this post just how she’s spent some of her life since that day!

  10. Dolores says:

    As I read and re-read your beautiful tribute I can hardly see through my tears of sorrow and joy. Sorrow because I am about to lose my favorite cousin, and joy because Arlene and I have shared our lives since our early childhood. Even though we’ve lived 300 miles apart it never kept us from visiting, being in each others weddings, and sharing our joys and trials of motherhood and old age. When Arlene leaves us she will take a part of my heart with her. Thank you for honoring her in the beautiful way she so much deserves.

    • Thank you, Dolores. There’s no question that Arlene considered you more of a sister than a cousin, for I’ve heard for years how you two were inseparable as children when she was growing up in St. Louis. That you maintained that relationship from childhood through your 80s is remarkable. You will indeed have an angel in heaven when she leaves us. We all will.

  11. Thank you for sharing this with us. Wow, I’m really touched by what a lovely relationship you have shared with your mother-in-law. I can totally understand the sabbatical that you took. Family comes first, and though I am sure it’s been a tough time for you and your family, it’s a time that you needed to be there with them. What a lovely tribute. I hope that all those wonderful memories you have shared is of solace. *hug*

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