First off, this is not a story about a business person, community leader, poet, musician, or anyone who would normally be featured in a newspaper article. This is the story of a tiny lady, no more than 90 pounds. She was a retired nurse who believed in eating the right foods, never took any medication or even went to the doctor, an avid reader who could talk to you for hours about any subject, an extraordinary gardener, a woman who never married, lived alone in a tiny south Oak Park house for more than 40 years, a person who never drove a car and always walked to her destination, a quiet woman who truly bloomed where she was planted. This is the story of a very lovely former member of our community-Monica Spegar.
On July 19, Monica’s sister in Pennsylvania-Maggie-called me at about 6 in the evening, asking me if I would go over and check on Monica because she had not answered the phone all day long. I went across the street and saw that her mail was in the slot at that late hour in the day. I rang and rang the bell, pounded on the door and called her name. No answer. So I ran back home and called 911. Shortly after that, the police arrived. I explained what had happened and that Monica was always at home, either in the garden or in the house reading and that her sister had tried to reach her all day.
While the police were trying to find a way to get in, I used my cellphone to call Dr. Carole Benson, my friend (and Monica’s), who came over shortly after that. Since the police could not get in, they called the fire department. Two firetrucks arrived and let the police inside. Carole, Monica’s next door neighbor Sue Frost, myself, and now all the neighbors were waiting outside.
The police officer came out and shook his head. Monica was gone. Carole and I asked the officer if we could go inside and see her and say goodbye. He said, “Oh no, I don’t think you want to do that,” but we told him we really did want to come inside. She was in her gardening clothes and in the kitchen, apparently with a stack of her favorite reading material in her arms because when she dropped to the floor all her treasured books were around her head.
Carole and I stayed with the officer and Monica until about 9:15 that night until the authorities came for her body. We picked a bouquet from her garden to put with her in the ambulance. At first they said nothing could go with the body. But then they saw how important it was to us that a part of her garden be with her, so they changed their minds.
Sadly, we watched as the ambulance drove off. I then noticed that there were three Tribunes on her porch. So our poor little buddy must have died on Wednesday night-three days earlier. I can’t tell you how terrible I feel that I did not check on her for three days. I usually saw her in the garden working, but as the garden got taller and thicker, it was hard to see her little head from across the street.
Just the week before, Monica had returned from her two-week trip back to Blakely, Penn. to see her family as she had done every July. The night she returned from her trip I was in her yard cutting her grass so that everything looked pretty when she came home. She looked wonderful, was as spunky as ever, and we talked about her trip and what a great time she had.
Monica showed me a cocoon she brought back. She raised butterflies and was going to raise this one for Meredith, the little girl next door. She looked wonderful that evening, still going strong at 79-lifting heavy bags of gardening materials, washing her outside windows and cleaning her own gutters on a ladder, walking long distances to Whole Foods on Thursday all the way from the 1100 South block of Wisconsin, and, of course, working long hard hours in her garden. She gave me a big hug and thanked me for looking after her garden and mowing the lawn. That was the last time I talked to her.
Growing up in Pennsylvania
Carole Benson and I flew to Blakely the following weekend for her wake and funeral. Her family was happy we came so we could meet everyone and hear about how she grew up. After all the services were over, her sister Maggie and nephew Larry took us to the house where Monica and all her sisters and brother as well as her father and his brothers and sisters were born. We learned that she was from a very small farming community where they led a very quiet farm life.
After Monica finished high school, she cleaned the houses of wealthy people for a short time and then told her father she wanted to be a nurse. Off to Chicago she went to study nursing at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she was the school’s star student. A plaque still hangs there with her name.
Monica worked her regular hours, Christmas, Easter and any other holiday she could and filled in for other nurses so she could save money to buy the house she lived in here in Oak Park. She also worked the holidays so nurses who had families could spend the holiday at home with them. Since Monica did not have any family here, her patients were the people she shared holidays with.
Monica might be described as a bit of a loner, but I would describe her as a quiet, bashful, happy lady who served as a teacher for so many people. Once you got her talking, she could discuss any topic with you for hours. She taught me so much about gardening that two years ago my garden was on the Oak Park Garden Walk. Monica’s garden was also nominated to be on the walk, but she didn’t want that. Her garden was always open to anyone but she was not the sort of person who wanted to be in the spotlight in that way.
So many of the gardens in our community started with seeds and small plants from Monica’s garden. Every spring when she gave me new plants, she would test me on their names. She also taught me about natural gardening techniques-birds, butterflies, and hummingbirds. She knew the dates the hummingbirds would arrive and always reminded me to sit quietly in the yard at dusk, and I would see them at the feeders.
Monica was one of those rare people who could find the entire world right in her own backyard. Hers was a small and quiet world that was not made crazy by running here and there like most people today. Monica often said she could not understand how anyone could be bored because there weren’t enough hours in the day for her to do all the things she wanted to do. She never owned a TV in her life-books were her entertainment. However, if she was invited to go to an occasional theatrical performance with her favorite nephew, Larry, either here in Chicago, in her hometown of Blakely, or on a once-a-year trip to New York City, she would always be very excited to go with him. There was never one word of criticism about any performance-she loved all of it.
I always knew when the Christmas season was starting because I would see Monica from across the street with her little red wagon, stacked high with packages that she was taking to the post office to mail off to her family in Pennsylvania. Many times the snow was really deep and the curbs were plowed into mountains of packed ice and snow, but Monica found a way to trudge through. If I offered to drive her, she would always say she was fine and was thoroughly enjoying the walk. “Thoroughly enjoying” was her favorite description for almost anything she was doing. I can’t remember hearing her complain about anything. She truly lived in and enjoyed the moment.
Memorial garden party
Now that Monica is gone, Carole and I have the family’s permission to look after her garden. Almost every time I go there, I am visited by another of Monica’s friend, making a stop to pay their respects to her in her garden. It seems this shy, quiet lady knew many people because of her great gardening gift. Each one said Monica taught them so many things. Some were very young children.
Because she was loved by so many, Carole, Sue, and I planned a Garden Party Remembrance for Monica on Aug. 24. We put up posters all over the community-no address on the posters, just that all friends of Monica were invited. If you knew Monica, then you would know the place. We had permission from the village to close the block on that day. Carole picked shasta daisy seeds from Monica’s garden and put them in little silk bags to give to those who attended so they could spread her garden even further.
Guests had a light dinner in block party style in front of Monica’s house. Carole’s brother, Bob Benson, a professional musician, played music from some of the Broadway shows Monica loved and four members of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest also played. Larry Spegar filmed the event, and we invited Monica’s friends to tell their favorite stories about her.
All of us who knew and loved Monica needed to celebrate her life, and I think if Monica were there with us she would have said in her spunky, enthusiastic way, “I thoroughly enjoyed it!”
If you have a community story to tell, e-mail your submission to Ken Trainor at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 613-3310.