Since my mother’s death, every Friday eve around the time she died, I do a vigil. This past Friday, there was a light rainfall, our gardens were iridescent in the moonlight, and the fresh air and scent of the rain just felt so good…so I did it outside in my nightie, standing with my arms wide open and looking at the sky. Sometimes my tears get stuck so I let the rain fall on me to wash away some of my grief.
A person is a sum of many parts, of all the lives they’ve touched. There is no all good, all bad, we are many spirits interwoven into one giant one. My mother had a giant spirit. Personality Plus. A lot of heartache and drama; also a lot of joy even if she wasn’t always aware of it. And sometimes we weren’t.
But looking back, I remember the way my two year old son’s eyes lit up, overjoyed to see my parents walking towards us at the county fair — a surprise trip from Cape Cod to Vermont.
My mother and I fought a lot, said cruel things, but there was always love, a connection that I couldn’t break no matter how hard I tried to break the apron strings. Heck, I’m still tied to my Dad’s and I’ve never even seen him in an apron.
But my mom. I was lucky to have her. I had her for fifty more years than she had her mother. She was seven when my grandmother Lottie Mae died. It defined her life and it defined ours. She was fierce, possessive, couldn’t let anything go, perhaps because she lost the most precious thing to a child at a very young age.
Rhoda Jane Hurley died the evening of Friday, July 22 surrounded by many loving family members. To be honest it was a shock. She was very much like the Energizer Bunny, always rallying and roaring back stronger than ever. Not this time.
She was born in Claremont, NH on October 8, 1938 to Lottie Mae and Clifford A. Densmore, the fourth “surprise” with much older siblings. Her fondest childhood memories were of her mother’s beautiful home and gardens, and she used to reminisce about the fresh garden vegetables — tomato sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, radish and butter sandwiches and gorgeous salad plates her mother would lay out. She had a pet pig, who would meet her after school and she was allowed to shoot at cans for recreation. Her parents’ deaths in her eighth year haunted her all of her life, but she persevered, raised by her older sister, Carol, and traveled to a bigger world than Claremont. Her sister was married to a Navy man, and they lived on Chicago’s North Shore in a striking Art Deco apartment building at 5200 Sheridan Road for a few years. When she was 11, she traveled by plane to her maternal Grammy Angela’s in Maine, a place she felt cared for and well-loved. She had deep roots throughout New England, with ancestors having fought at Bunker Hill and in Shay’s Rebellion.
Rhoda finished her school years in Rhode Island, graduating from No. Kingstown High School in 1956, where she was known as “Rhody,” a swell gal with a terrific personality, the nicest girl in the senior class or any other class. Just a blue-eyed blonde, never known to wear a frown, her sunny disposition won her many friends. She planned on entering the nursing field, but met a dashing young Marine named Bill Hurley at the Hingham Marine Barracks pool, and nursing school became a distant memory. Roller coaster rides at Nantasket Beach, followed by Bill’s many trips to RI while courting, led to marriage on January 16, 1957 in E. Greenwich, RI. They had no real honeymoon, but in March of 1957, they were off to NC and the journey began.
Within six years, there were many moves to various bases throughout the South. Four daughters were born, and her husband was off to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean for the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other assignments. Through it all, she held home base together while her husband did his job, all this by the age of 25, with four girls, ages 5 and under.
In Quantico, life settled down for a bit, with Bill back on base. She pursued Altar Rosary, ceramics classes and decorating her home as the girls grew a bit.
In the summer of 1967, after a Cape Cod vacation, Bill moved her to a house in a brand new Hyannis neighborhood. Within a week, he was off to Vietnam and Rhoda settled into an unfinished house with her girls, ages 3 through 9. Throughout his “tour,” she set about finishing their house, had a midnight sled ride one snowy night with neighbors down the only hill around, and set about worrying about Bill during the Siege of Khe Sahn while caring for their daughters. Her girls were her life and she particularly loved their school vacations when they were home with her. The winter of 1968, she finally had that honeymoon in Hawaii with Bill when he had his R and R from Vietnam. When he returned for good that summer of 1968, the next move was to Ohio Steel Country to run the Marine Recruiting Center. It was the turbulent times of Kent State and Vietnam protests, but after two years they returned to the Cape for a couple of years so Bill could finish college, before it was off for another tour, this one in California. In 1974, they returned to the cape for good, with Bill doing tours of duty that didn’t require moving the family.
Rhoda loved interior design, refinishing furniture, and making a home. She was a long-time subscriber to Better Homes and Gardens, she loved reading, especially history, biographies and mysteries, and she was an avid map collector. Her love of geography she shared with her son-in-law, Patrick with a yearly subscription to National Geographic. Although a homemaker, she was also very much a business manager, keeping a meticulous household and records. She dressed impeccably, and Kathleen Needham used to tell Rhoda’s daughter “your mother was always so glamorous.”
Her daughters’ friends all loved her as she did them, particularly Holly Murzic Romotsky, who predeceased her in 1986. She swapped her car for Holly’s 1960’s battered Rambler wagon one weekend so daughter “Patti Ann” and her friend Holly, would have a safe, reliable vehicle to travel off-cape in. She knew what she was in for and loved to tell the story, as sometimes you had to lift the Rambler’s hood and use a wrench on the choke to get it to start.
Rhoda was a great storyteller, and she could tell you a good one, full of colorful details if you had the time to listen. A smart, independent woman with a sharp tongue and a memory like an elephant’s, she had a sense of humor, loads of personality and was known as a “hoot,” “feisty,” and a “cool lady.” She adored dogs, particularly Bucky, her beloved Obi (with his own room and loveseat), Joey, Bob, and numerous Sullivan canines. It was a mutual admiration society.
It was hard letting go of her daughters as they left home, but fortunately there were grandchildren to sustain her for a few more decades.
Daughter Jacqueline remembers most “my mother calling me JJ, how much she loved me, how much she loved her son-in-law Patrick, and how much she loved our daughters Meredith and Caroline. I will always know these things to be true.” Betsy recalls the time when she was three and Rhoda left her at the Base Nursery Care while she shopped once. Afterwards, in the car Betsy stood in the back seat, ranting at her mother, “Don’t you ever leave me. I am not ready for you to leave me!” Betsy remembered “Oh I was mad at her. She was so flustered I think that was the time she ran a red light and got a ticket.”
Niece Debbie recalls wild times — “one that immediately comes to mind includes flying dishes,” and her mother, Patsy, Rhoda’s older sister — but also healing times. “Reconnecting with your mother was a wonderful thing. It helped me in dealing with my mother’s death, and it helped with some of my unresolved anger. I love your mother as if she were my own, but without the hurtful baggage.” Spirited Densmore girls, flying dishes, sisterly shenanigans, but always love in the end.
A few years before she died, Rhoda reminisced, about Betsy’s birth, life in Chicago, her mother’s garden, her own beautiful penmanship and how daughter Kathleen’s penmanship was just as beautiful. She’d cry sometimes, saying how much she was going to miss her children when she was gone.
According to Marty, Patricia’s mate, “We never agreed on anything. She was a conservative Republican. I was a liberal Democrat. She loved the Mannings. I loathed the Mannings. She loved horse racing and hated baseball. Quite the opposite for me. The one thing we did have in common is that we would never concede defeat when we got in an argument. After a time, we tended to avoid hot topics, knowing that it was futile to think that either one of us would concede to the other. More recently I would call her on a regular basis, usually in the evening. Rhoda tended to take her frustrations out on Patricia so I decided I would take up some of the burden. After a short while I ended up enjoying our conversations. We eventually were able to even talk politics, as she became a disgruntled Republican and I a disillusioned Democrat. We found a common ground. I miss our evening chats already. I suspect we’ll resume them in a future life — another place, another time, but never recalling our past. Until we meet again.”
As granddaughter Molly writes,” To my best friend, spirit animal, and the woman who gave me all my sass, style and sweet tooth, my heart is in a million pieces without you. Wherever you are, Gram, I hope the decor is impeccable and the Manishewitz is flowing. I’ll meet you there someday. I’ll miss you forever. I’ll love you for always.”
Besides her daughters Patricia (mate Marty Gravelle), Kathleen, Jacqueline (Patrick Sullivan) and Elizabeth (mate Vincent D’Olympio), Rhoda leaves behind her grandchildren Anthony and Molly Pizzo, Sophie Larios, Helen, Mairead and Albert Hurley, Meredith and Caroline Sullivan, great-grandson Isaac, niece Debra Coderre Woodman, and numerous friends and relatives.
A closing note in her yearbook from high school pal Bub “Lanky” Ramstead read, “To Rhoda, If in heaven we don’t meet, hand in hand we’ll stand the heat. Lots of luck.”
The last word: If Rhoda were reading this she’d snap, “That’s not the way it happened!” and she’d proceed to set the record straight. The story never ends. We miss you, mama.
“When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all of these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.”
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
Years ago I was driving through a part of NH during one of my Vermont camping trips and I excitedly popped off a postcard to my mother, who is from Claremont. She is from the southwest corner of the state, this was the north — Woodsville and Haverhill to be exact — the western border along the Connecticut River, across from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
“I feel this soul connection, here Mom, yet I’ve never been here! It’s like I know this place.” I tried to explain.
Later when I called her and mentioned it again, she snapped, “Well, my grandmother was born there.” She gets testy about family history for many reasons I won’t go into here. And her grandmother is my great-grandmother, you know?
I have always felt magic in the woods, talked to spirits and worshiped deities amongst the trees since I was a small child. The woods are alive with spirits and they are where I am most at home. And so it was in the woods at Squam this past Saturday.
I only went to the art show but I understand now why it is too hard to write it all out in one post too soon. It is an experience that must be absorbed first, savored, to be shared, yes, but to be held onto before letting it go. Like a spirit in the woods.
Ad I Saw:
Mother’s Helper:Female: Private Living Space in my home with Cable and WiFi. $120.00 per week OR free in exchange for helping with my family (for 12 hours)… Driving, light cooking, babysitting (supervising) my two children ages 11 and 15. Must have car. Can work more hours then agreed upon for hourly wage. I can work my schedule around your “real” job. I am looking for a responsible but fun, family-oriented role model for my kids who are at a very formidable age. Sorry, no partying in my house. Please plan to socialize elsewhere.
I am very interested in your position for a mother’s helper for your 11 and 15 year old. My son is now 25, on his own and a musician. My daughter is almost 20, very responsible and returning to UMass for her junior year in September.
Years ago I was looking for the very same person you are looking for now — another me — I was raising my children on my own and recognized that those in-between ages are much more challenging than the early childhood stages. There were a couple of occasions that we got a taste of what it would be like to be in a household with other loving caregivers — it was a joy. I truly believe that it does take a village to raise a child and it was difficult trying to create the scenario then, but it was something I always dreamed of. I would love to be that person I needed then for someone else now.
Patricia A. Hurley
Attached is my resume. Please let me know if you don’t receive it. Thank you so much.
Wow! Your letter made me cry! It was beautiful! I would love to meet you. I am sorry to say that I am running out the door to pick up my daughter from gymnastics, so I can not respond as I would like to. It appears to me that you are looking for a mother’s helper position and not a place to live… Could you just clarify that? I will give you a call if you would like either tonight after 8 or tomorrow.
Looking forward to talking with you!
P.S. Do I have your phone number?
Some things just make you feel good, you know?
Sometimes if you want a relationship with someone badly enough, perhaps you have to settle for it on their terms, so long as it doesn’t mean allowing yourself to get beat up. This is how it is with my mother. I can’t totally shut her out of my life and yet her toxicity has had a huge affect on my life. I don’t want to blame, but I do want to break free and live a life of joy and wonder. But how do I find that life? I am still searching. In the meantime, I think I do not want to have regrets when my mother is gone — regrets that I could have done more, visited her more, called her more. I’ve tried at one time or another, and I have had some good memories with my mom, but there is also a lingering melancholy that persists and sometimes it drowns me. I want joy and wonder. I am not sure where to look for it. But this is how I feel today. Tomorrow I meet my childhood girlfriend and the sun is supposed to shine. And that is one place I will find that joy.
Maundy Thursday. Holy Thursday. The Last Supper. I felt like I was channeling Evelyn as I baked biscotti dolci for the Easter holiday. Little round almond flavored cookies with a confectioner’s glaze and colored sprinkles. I remembered her in our little LaFountain Street kitchen making them so many years ago when Anthony was a little guy. Before Molly was even born. I think it’s how we hold people we’ve loved in our hearts – through our memories and sometimes our actions. So many of the memories are triggered by food. Our first nourishment, almost before the love comes, there’s the sharing of food that is so sacred. Mother and child. We are blessed when we have someone to share a meal with, whether it’s our first or our last, or somewhere in between.
** above images of homes across the street from our wee house from this site: