By Dan Haley
In my calendar at work I have a yellow sheet from a small legal pad clipped in the back. On it, in my mom's handwriting, are all the family birthdays, wedding anniversaries and a few other notable Haley milestones. She wrote it all down, at my request, after I had, once again, missed one of my siblings' big days.
Every January I sit at my desk and transfer all those dates into my new "Week-at-a-Glance" desk calendar. Nothing doing in January. Two birthdays in February. March brings three birthdays and a notation I added, reminding me that I now share my birthday with the official legal anniversary of our daughter's adoption — it took three-and-a-half-years to finalize so it's worth celebrating.
Then comes April, the 12th of April, and it just says "Mom." I remember back in January writing that down and thinking, "How old would Mom be now?" She's been gone for 11 years though it doesn't seem possible. And it hit me that Mary Haley would be 100 this year.
How do you celebrate the 100th birthday of a feisty Irish mom of six, a Wally Phillips-listening school teacher, spectacular advocate for her disabled daughter, chain-smoking, plain-spoken, small and shrinking-by-the-year, loving, tough, funny mom?
Well, her kids decided you celebrate by gathering together with the grandkids and recreating the meals she cooked with determination — and in tight rotation — from 1950 to 1980. My mom was not a great cook. Were there great cooks in Oak Park in 1965 feeding eight faces a night (plus the drop-in friends), seven nights a week, shopping at Pan's on Harrison where the fresh vegetables came frozen and doing on it on combined salaries that never amounted to very much?
These were not adventurous meals. There were only 10 different ones and whatever variations you could spin off of Buddig's chipped ham. But we didn't go hungry. We were happier than we knew. And at least we weren't like the family two doors down that had cereal for dinner most nights because the dad had lost his teeth.
So what was on the menu for the Mary Haley Centennial? Potato Chip Casserole. Made, now as then, exclusively with Jay's Potato Chips. This was basically tuna casserole where the crunch came from the chips. A Friday night staple for this Ascension family. On the alternate Fridays, it was Mrs. Paul's frozen fish sticks. I asked my oldest niece to bring the Mrs. Paul's but, alas, Ms. Paul seems to be as dead as my mom. So we had Gorton's fish sticks. Same delicious treat.
We made "goulash." What goes into goulash? My sister the nun had the clearest idea since she had watched this concoction come to life a few times. But how much mustard? And no one knew how many cans of Hunts Tomato Paste (tomato paste?). Who was going to sit at my mom's elbow back in '71 when she was machine-gunning another meal onto the dining room table and say, "Now, Mom, is that French's Yellow Mustard or Grey Poupon?"
We made francheezies. How do you make a hot dog less healthy? You slice it and stuff it with Velveeta. I asked the middle niece to bring out a big old box of Velveeta, and I might as well have asked her to haul a tub of lard out to Oak Park. But, good sport that she is, she brought the Velveeta. Did not see her actually consume a francheezie, however.
Now my mom was much more than these mid-century meals. Just ask the state legislators my mom and dad took on as they fought the horror of state care for the developmentally disabled. Just ask the grandkids she nurtured. Just ask the bad cooks she raised up with powerful love and unswerving support.
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