My mother, Theresa Willett, died on March 18th, 2008 from complications due to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), with which she was diagnosed in 2005. Here are nine stories about her, one for every year that she’s been gone.
When teenagers she deemed too old for trick-or-treating came to the door to scam candy out of her and said “trick or treat,” she would say, “okay, trick,” and then make them sing “I’m a Little Teapot” to earn their candy.
She owned three different sets of Christmas china – one that was plain red-and-white checked (which could also double for Valentine’s Day and 4th of July depending on the color of accompanying napkins and tablecloth) which was the Casual Christmas China, used only for Christmas breakfast and/or at the kids’ table; one which was fancy and gold-rimmed and featured the 12 Days of Christmas, which we used for Christmas dinner where everyone had to go around in a circle and sing their plate in order to get any food; and one with a plain holly border that was only called into service when we had more than 12 people for a dinner party. I was 20 years old before I realized other people thought this was strange.
It wounded her on deeply, deeply personal level when Robert Downey Jr. had to leave Ally McBeal to go back to rehab. She talked about it all the time. “He’s so talented and this is so sad, I just want him to get the help he needs, HE DESERVES SUCH A GOOD CAREER.” Sometimes it’s the really dumb tiny things you miss most when you lose a person, but I will never get over the fact that she died before the Robert Downey Jr. career renaissance she spent most of the nineties loudly insisting that he deserved.
The night before I moved to New York after college, we sat outside on the back porch drinking lemon drops and watching the sun set. I told her I was really scared and nervous that I was going to hate it or that I was going to fail. She told me that she moved straight from her parents’ house to her husband’s house. “I never had to move to a new city and learn their public transportation system. I never had to pay my own electric bill.” She told me she loved the life that she had, loved Dad and loved us kids, and there wasn’t any part of it that she would trade; but she was also really happy that she and my dad had been able to give their kids opportunities to go out and experience the world in a bigger way than she could when she was our age. “I’m really proud that my girls are going to be the kind of women who go out and have adventures.”
Once when she was hauling like a thousand bags of groceries out of the car and my brother was pestering her about something and getting in her way without helping, she heaved this bone-deep sigh and said, “Chris, can you poke yourself in the eye? My hands are full.”
When she was in college, she was the president of the Delta Gammas, and one night she and some of her sorority sisters got drunk (and I’m assuming high, since this was like 1974) and stole the foosball table from one of the frat houses. They unscrewed the legs, left them there, and made off with the table, which they hid in the basement of their dorm in a dining hall storage room full of fruit crates. With the mind of a true diabolical genius, she also stole all the little white foosballs, which she periodically had anonymously sent to the fraternity president through campus mail, and would then casually hang around the mail room and wait and cackle when he opened his mailbox and promptly lost his shit. It escalated to the point where the frat blamed another frat for stealing it and a war very nearly broke out, so the girls – probably drunk again – trucked back down to the storage room one night to retrieve the table. But with no way to stealthily sneak it back into the house, they simply left it in the middle of the huge grassy field at the center of campus for everyone to see on their way to class the next morning. No one ever knew it was her, but ten years later she ran into the frat president at a reunion, confessed, and was PISSED AS HELL that he completely refused to believe she could have been behind it. “If I’m finally gonna come clean after all this time I at least want credit for it!”
She was ruthlessly competitive at any and all games. She was a pretty gracious loser, all things considered, but an unbearably smug winner. After she was diagnosed with ALS, when her hands were losing a lot of their motor function and she was just beginning to have trouble walking, the whole family went to the park one day to play croquet, and not only did she completely and utterly kick my ass despite needing us to physically help her wrap her fingers around the handle of the mallet, but she kicked my ass while triumphantly crowing “YOU’RE LOSING TO A CRIPPLE!” to throw me off my game.
She and my dad belonged to an order called the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, which as far as I understand it is some kind of descendant of a Knights Templar-ish organization but which primarily now works on fundraising for charitable projects in the Holy Land. (There is apparently some obscure clause in the rules of their order that they are the only people legally permitted by the Vatican to ride horses into a church, and she quickly got very tired of me demanding she take advantage of this.) Whenever they had formal events, my dad had to wear a tux and she had to wear a black dress with a black lace mantilla and they had to wear satin capes (ask me how much my dad enjoyed this).
One of the projects the Knights spent several years working on was raising money for a new building on the campus of Bethlehem University in Palestine. There were several ideas being tossed around – computer lab, science classrooms, etc. My mom pointed out that there was nowhere on campus for students of different faiths to actually mingle socially, and that some of her most significant experiences when she was in college happened just by having a conversation with someone who came from a really different background than her. She suggested that instead of a computer lab, they build a coffee shop. When my parents went to the Holy Land to visit the new building, they brought my little brother Colin with them. The campus coffee shop at Bethlehem University is named after him.
She learned a year or two into her illness that she and my dad were being given a big humanitarian award for their service by the Knights, and she decided that since she wasn’t going to get to be at her own funeral she was going to throw herself (I mean technically her and Dad, but like I don’t think Dad was fooled) a kickass party. There was a big celebratory Mass presided by the Archbishop and then at the reception there was champagne and cupcake towers stacked on vintage cake plates and like five different kinds of fancy cheese and a chocolate fondue fountain with pretzel rods you could dip right into the chocolate waterfall. She invited all her friends and all our friends and nobody said it out loud but everybody knew this was our chance to give her the kind of party she deserved while she was still here to enjoy it. It remains hands-down the best party I’ve ever been to in my whole life.