My mother deserves more than a paragraph on a social media site. My mother was the best at everything she did, even if it was cussing, praising, protecting, criticizing, scolding, loving, embarrassing or any other attribute that might or might not be associated with raising seven children on her own. Our father passed away early in life from natural causes. He left mom with seven children; ages 15-years-old to two months old.
I was her favorite. I was her favorite because I was going to be a priest. That was mom’s automatic ticket to heaven. Then, I became a teenager and the ticket became nonrefundable. I’m sure she was pissed.
Rhea L. (Fritz) Ryan was a great cook. Receiving commodities weekly did not guarantee gourmet meals every night, but she was creative with what she had. Every day after school we were treated with something she whipped up during the day. For instance, Monday might be doughnuts; Tuesday – oatmeal cookies; Wednesday – peanut butter cookies; Thursday – homemade bread; Friday – may have been buttermilk brownies. There was always something. I realized at a later time that feeding us something sweet after school may have spoiled our appetite for dinner. In that way, mom didn’t have to worry about making huge nightly dinners (or suppers, as we called them).
Supper was at 5:30 pm. If you showed up at 5:35 and there was nothing left, it was your problem. Sunday noon we had fried chicken and potato salad on one Sunday followed by pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots the next Sunday. After that, the rotation started all over. It was always appreciated, delicious and somehow, plentiful!
We had a good-sized backyard and it had no trees, except on the south side – for a while (they were American Elm trees with Dutch Elm disease). Home plate was distinguishable from anything else in the yard. First base was the trunk of an old apple tree. Second base a smaller worn-down spot in the middle of the yard. Third base was the easternmost clothes line pole. One Good Friday, after being kicked off the altar boy team, I built a regulation basketball hoop on the far eastern end of our backyard. I bought a fourteen-foot 4×4; nailed a few boards together and attached it to the 4×4; and hung a new hoop with netting on the backboard. I dug a hole and placed the constructed hoop assembly into the ground. I know I had help with the latter, but I don’t remember who.
So, between the baseball field and the basketball court, we had kids in our yard a lot. On occasion, mom would come home and walk into the backyard and yell “what are all you kids doing here? Don’t you have yards of your own? Get the hell out! Go home!” It was sort of embarrassing, but what always seemed to happen next was ironic.
“Mom, can we go to [insert the name of any other Vail kid’s family here]?” The answer was always, “no! You have your own yard to play in.” She didn’t understand that with over forty kids in the neighborhood, and possibly another forty throughout the rest of town, playing with your brothers just didn’t cut it. “I don’t want you hanging out with the wrong crowd,” she would say. I constantly had to remind her that “we (the Ryan boys) were the wrong crowd.”
Mom’s favorite cuss phrase was “son-of-a-bitch” (singular) or “sons-of-bitches” (plural). However, my youngest brother swears that for the first ten years of his life he thought his name was “you no good dirty rotten sons of bitches.” Now, Joe and I can make fun of this, but if anyone else would attempt to make fun of our mom for her unique language skills and embarrassing moments, we were ready to fight.
There were several times in which mom would call me a son-of-a-bitch and I would ask, “do you listen to yourself? Do you understand what you just said?” Irony was not a familiar word to mom, even though she watched Jeopardy every day. She would get pissed at me for giving the question before the contestants. I had to promise to shut up when we watched together.
Rhea had a way of pronouncing things incorrectly. I had to explain to others that she had Norm Crosby Syndrome. Irony: Mom couldn’t relate. She loved Norm Crosby. She used to tell everyone that I worked for the UCLA. Hey, she got the letters correct; they were just in the wrong order. I wonder how many people think I probably pushed a broom at a major Southern California university.
Mom provided us kids with many memorable moments, most of them unintentionally funny. She also provided us with love that was difficult to express in words, but overwhelming in support and pride.
I love and miss my mom just as much as anyone else who posted on Facebook this week. Probably more. After all, she was the leader of the family who taught her kids by example how to fight for what they wanted. She may have been one of the poorest women in town when it came to a financial position in the community, but she was the richest in talent – knowing how to stretch the simple into something abundant.
When one of her children got into trouble, and someone would criticize or ostracize that child – especially a sibling, mom would always stand behind that child. I can’t count how many times I heard her say, “He needs whatever I can do for him, because he’s my son.”
Mom did not have an easy life. When she was a teenager, her parents were divorced when she was a teenager in the 1930s. Unfortunately, divorce is not as big a stigma in today’s world, but in the 1930s, yes, it was. But she survived, as did her four sisters. She learned to cook while working for her Aunt Fern, who owned a café in Manning, Iowa. Mom never had a driver’s license until she was well into her forties. As the last of her children left home, Mom began working as a breakfast cook at Cronk’s Café in Denison, and eventually became the cook at St. Ann’s Grade School in Vail. The students loved her, as she loved them.
She was a single mom for years. She traded powered milk to a baker in Denison for cash, which she used to buy milk delivered to our door. She was a candy maker, and I don’t recall that she used a thermometer to know when the candy reached the soft ball or hard ball stage. She knew by using the cold-water method. Her divinity was divine; her caramels helped me win a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair; she made the best potato salad. I am thankful for a wife who can replicate it – I can’t.
I learned not to visit mom on Sundays. There was something about her that could lead me to take her to Bingo, or have the person with me take her. She would find a way home – possibly. If not, that Catholic guilt could make you stay. She wasn’t even born a Catholic. She became a convert to marry dad. And she became one of the best Catholics I have ever known. For much of her life, she attended Mass daily. Mom had her faults, but don’t we all?
There are so many stories to tell about mom that would make you laugh, but I don’t want to give away comedic material that may be used by one of my siblings in a standup routine.