Mary Haley at 100

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

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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Magpie from Oak Park  

Posted: May 18th, 2012 3:19 PM

part two! ... that they ate so much in the hopes that the meal would eventually taste better. (And not one speck of Irish blood flowed through his mom's veins, it must be mentioned!) Happy 100th Bday, Mary Haley!

Magpie from Oak Park  

Posted: May 18th, 2012 3:17 PM

I am a little late to the party, Dan, but felt compelled to respond to your touching and altogether Irish tribute to your mom. Your recollections choked me up and made me laugh aloud several times. I am an Ascension alum, minted in the early 60's with an Irish mom with moderate culinary skills. My husband, also an Ascension alum, laughed in recognition at the meals you described and the travails of raising a large family and keeping their appetites at bay. He and his siblings have often joked

Michael Nevins  

Posted: May 6th, 2012 1:32 PM

Dan, I'll provide the OP connection to "Irish Mom" and concur that my mom, an Ascension grad and so obviously not as old as your mom (1921), served the 5 of us the same stuff, too. And, of course, something either cheese-based or fish sticks on Fridays! We survived and thrived!

Helen V Kossler from Oak Park  

Posted: May 5th, 2012 1:59 PM

Whoa,Dan. My mother, a feisty Irish Catholic mother of 5 from Pittsburgh ALSO had the same cookbook. With no internet, how did those ten menu plans make the rounds? I laughed as I read your column because I remembered those infamous Friday night dinners, although my mother occasionally got gourmet with salmon patties made-- you guessed it--from canned salmon, canned mushrooms and canned soup. Yum!

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: May 3rd, 2012 12:35 AM

I had a Irish Mom that was much like Mary. My Mom was Ann, or Annie as called by my father. She had her 100th birthday in 2011, fifteen years after her death. My parents had nine kids, all voracious. I also had a chronic shortage of money. I recall in the mid 50's that after many kid complaints that we never had pizza like every other family, she said she would make homemade pizza. She served half an English Muffin lathered with Campbell Soup (with milk) and a slice of american cheese. It is the closest the family ever came to picketing her kitchen. A takeoff on the frankfurter with Velvetta was one of our family favorites -- Cheez Whiz and frankfurter sandwiches. We didn't use the term hot dogs. That was something you only got at ball games. Great story and remembrance, Dan. Thanks for sharing.

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