My mother, Margaret E. “Peg” Santa Maria, died on April 11, 2011, at the age of 89. As is yours, my mother was special. This is her eulogy. Writing it was one of the hardest, yet most valuable, things I have ever done.
Huntington, West Virginia was founded on the banks of the Ohio River in 1870 as the western terminus for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.
That’s where Mom was born on March 8, 1922. Her parents were Grace and Wylie Hillard. Not surprisingly, Wiley was a railroad man.
Twelve years later, Mom’s little brother, Bill, was born. Bill is a great guy who lives in Colorado. He possesses many of his sister’s admirable qualities.
Mom went to school in Huntington where she attended Marshall College (which is now Marshall University) for two years.
One day, when she was about 22, Mom went to the local train station to watch a troop train go through town. As she stood there, she was spotted by one of the soldiers, my Dad, Phil “Bud” Santa Maria. It was love at first sight.
If you remember him, you know that my Dad was a persistent man of action, a real dynamo, so it’s not surprising that Mom and Dad were married a short time later.
Harriet Nelson Period
After they married in 1944, Mom and Dad headed to Florida, settling in Fort Lauderdale. My younger sister, Peggy, and I were born there.
Mom and Dad had a good life in Florida. You may have heard Fort Lauderdale referred to as the “Venice of America” because of the picturesque canals running through the city. Obviously, even then, houses on the water were coveted. Somehow, Mom and Dad found a way to buy a house on one of the canals, on Bontona Avenue.
This picture of Mom and her homely first born was taken in the back yard at Bontona Avenue.
In 1955, Mom and Dad decided to move closer to Dad’s parents who lived in Philadelphia. They traveled north and fell in love with the tree covered streets of Riverton, New Jersey. Their first home was at 526 Main Street. Several years later, they purchased a lot at 1 Bank Avenue, where they built a home – doing most of the work themselves – overlooking the Delaware River. They lived there until Dad’s death.
What I’ve told you about so far represents, to me, the first of three distinct parts of Mom’s adult life. I’ll call it her Harriet Nelson Period.
During this time, Mom was a 1950s – 1960s style homemaker. She was totally devoted to Peggy and me. Actually, for me, she was largely mother and father. Dad worked long hours to provide for us – which he did very well – so most of the parenting responsibilities fell to Mom. For example, she was the one that took me to baseball games in Philadelphia when my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers were in town.
Mom also “mothered” our friends. For my closest friends, our house on Bank Avenue was a second home. We always had a crowd of kids in our house. And when my friends were at the house, Mom didn’t just host them, she joined us. She was comfortable being with us and my friends and I genuinely liked having her involved in our activities. We learned the hard way that she was a great card player, especially Hearts.
Dad died prematurely of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on July 20, 1976.
Mom was 54 years old. It was the late 1970s. Inflation was 18% a year. The cost of running the house on the river was skyrocketing. She had no spouse, no bread winner, no assets besides the house and no life insurance proceeds.
Mary Tyler Moore Period
My Dad’s death abruptly thrust Mom into the second phase of her adult life. This was her working woman phase. I call it her Mary Tyler Moore Period.
She had taken a job at the New Jersey Water Company just a few years before my dad died. She liked her job and loved her co-workers. She worked there until she reached 65 and retired in 1987.
Elizabeth Taylor Period
With her retirement, Mom evolved into the third phase of her adult life, her volunteer and service period. I’ll name this her Elizabeth Taylor Period for the caring and philanthropic actress (who happened to be a favorite of Mom).
Volunteer service was Mom’s true calling.
Not long after Mom retired from the water company, my grandmother suffered a stroke. Until her death in 1993, she resided at Cinnaminson Nursing Home where Mom was a daily visitor.
Mom didn’t just visit my grandmother. She visited everyone who lived there. Her sincere, friendly, positive presence brightened many lives.
After my grandmother’s death, Mom shifted her focus to other volunteer efforts, principally at Lourdes Medical Center.
The last time I heard a figure, a few years ago, Mom had accumulated more than 25,000 hours of volunteer work at the hospital! That’s equivalent to more than 12 years of a full-time job. And she loved every minute of it.
Mom continued to work at the hospital until just a few months ago. In fact, during her recent illness and up to the very end of her life, she intended to return to her volunteer work at the hospital as soon as she was well enough.
What Mom Taught Us
My Mom was not the type to give advice. She didn’t tell you how to do things or how to run your life.
She did better. She showed you.
If you watched her, you learned through the power of her example all you need to know to have a successful life that leaves a mark on the world.
These are some of the things I learned from my Mom . . .
Resilience. Although her formative years were lived during the Depression, and she lived through World War II, I never heard her complain about how hard either was. Not once. She had a very serious operation after my sister was born. That didn’t slow her down either. She recovered and never looked back. When she lost her husband prematurely and had to start over at 54, she soldiered on, resolutely doing the things necessary to survive and prosper.
Grit. As you know, grit means perseverance. It means keeping going when others would quit. This little, 100-pound woman was all grit.
Positive attitude. Mom was that rare person who never complained. She was always pleasant. She radiated good feelings. She was a delight to be around. Always.
Humility. Mom was completely humble and unpretentious. She would rather help people than impress them. She would be annoyed about me “bragging on her” and telling you how many volunteer hours she gave to Lourdes Medical Center. You would never have heard about that from her.
Service. Many, probably most of us, have a “What’s In It For Me?” mindset. Mom was different. She was a service oriented person who would ask “What’s In It For (or What Can I Do For) You?” How much better would our world be if more of us had that attitude?
Courage. She wasn’t a big person but, as you have heard – and probably already knew – Mom was strong willed. And that never changed. I watched her closely in the last days of her life and I never saw even a flicker of foreboding. She lived her life fearlessly until her last breath.
For her inspiring life and these lessons, I will always be grateful.