Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Madeline Frances Hunter (25 December 1917 - 11 March 2012)

You may have noticed that things have been quiet here for a while.  There's a reason for that, explained in the story below.  In a nutshell, family comes first.

Mom and me a while ago
My mother was a wartime Christmas baby.  

The second of two children, she was born Madeline Frances Scott in her maternal grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on 25 December 1917.  Even though her parents customarily lived in Albany, NY, they had moved in with her mother’s mother for the last months of the pregnancy.  Meanwhile, her father Peter found a job as a machinist, working at the Union Metallic Cartridge factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He commuted back to Brooklyn on weekends.  After all, there was a war on and working in a munitions factory provided good money to a young family.

Soon after she was born, Madeline’s family returned to Albany. All was well until three days after her ninth birthday.  Her mother Rose, who had been sick for months, died at home of a strange and mysterious disease called pemphigus, which, at the time, was incurable.  Now, it’s a disease easily treated with antibiotics, none of which existed then.

The picture below is the last family picture of the Scotts, taken in 1926, about four months before Madeline's mother died. 

Unable to work and also care for his two young children at the same time, her father arranged to send  Madeline and her older brother Walter to Brooklyn to live with his late wife’s sister and her family. She stayed there, part of a large extended family of O’Neil cousins and uncles, until her father remarried and she returned to Albany to enter high school.

In her "looker" days
She met my father while she was still in high school.  She was what they used to call a “looker” and sometimes modeled in local amateur fashion shows. He was a semi-pro basketball player, a local sports icon, and the son of a locally famous major league baseball player. Plus, he was employed and also owned a car, which was a pretty big thing in the 1930s.  They got engaged in 1937.  Theirs was a long off-again, on-again courtship that stretched on for five years.  She told me that she returned his engagement ring several times, for reasons she never revealed.

Still, Madeline and Mel finally married in August of 1942.  She was 24; he was 28.  A little bit more than two and a half years later, I was born.  Then, a little bit more than 16 years later, my father unexpectedly died and Madeline was suddenly a forty- three year old widow with a sixteen year old son.   Fortunately, she had taken a job with the State of New York several years before. It didn’t pay much, but was better than nothing.

After six or so years, while I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, she started dating a man that she had known in high school.  They got married about two weeks after my wife and I got married. A few years later, they both retired, moved to Florida for most of the year, and spent three or so months of every summer back up north in the Adirondacks.

In 1972
We visited them with two kids in tow nearly every weekend of the summer and traveled annually to Florida every winter during school vacations.  She was “Grandma” and he was “Papa” to our two sons, both of whom were magical and close to perfect in their eyes.

Then, in 1982, after thirteen years of marriage, her second husband died after a short illness, and she was once again a widow.  Madeline was now 64.  She decided to stay in Florida for most of the year, coming north for several months in the summer.  I would fly down, collect her and her car and drive north.  At the end of the summer, we’d reverse the trip. Then she’d fly up again for Christmas and New Year. 

This arrangement went on for nearly eighteen years.  Over time, her circle of Florida friends grew smaller as the folks she knew died, moved north or into retirement and nursing homes.  By 1998, her weekly ladies lunch group was down to a handful of women, all aging widows. A health incident convinced her that since she had no family support system in Florida, it was probably time to sell her place and move back north. 

Circa 2000
Madeline moved into a small apartment near Albany and was able to handle living by herself until last year, when her 93 years began to finally catch up with her.  During all this time, we talked every day, went out to lunch or dinner once a week, and spent lots of time together.

Then, one night in mid-December last year, she did not answer her phone when I called her in the evening.  I went to her apartment and found her on the floor, unable to get up.  Although nothing was broken, she had been there alone for more than 10 hours. Apparently she had tripped while making her bed in the morning and couldn’t reach a telephone.

She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where she spent three days, and then to a rehab center to learn how to walk with a walker.  We spent her 94th Christmas birthday together in her rehab room.  She was discharged the day before New Year’s Eve and moved in with us for seven weeks to further recuperate.  

Christmas 2011
Things did not go well.  She developed a spinal compression fracture that caused her great pain and severely limited her mobility.  Because of the pain, she had no desire to eat.  She lost weight. By mid-February, she was close to immobile because of her back pain.  She ended up back in the hospital.  Again, she spent three more nights there and was sent to yet another rehab center so that she could re-learn what they call ADLs (activities of daily living.)

Last week, as her rehab was coming to an end, she developed an opportunistic respiratory infection that turned into pneumonia.  She was sent to the hospital by ambulance early Sunday morning.  We met her there at 1:30 AM. 

Shortly before 5 PM on Sunday, March 11th, despite the best efforts of the hospital staff, her lungs gave out and she took her last breath, surrounded by her family. 

At 94, Madeline had outlived her two husbands, her brother, all of her cousins, and nearly all of her close friends.  

I wrote her obituary a few hours after she died, knowing full well that there were only a handful of people beyond our immediate family who knew her and were still alive.

The obit I wrote will appear in the local newspaper tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow is also my birthday.  In an ideal world, a person’s birthday and his or her mother’s obituary should never fall on the same day.  The world is, of course, neither fair nor ideal. 

Meanwhile, here’s the link to the very same obit on the funeral home website, with a color picture that I took of her a few months ago when she moved in with us following her first rehab stay.

But, as we all know, to everything there is a season, and thus, those of us who loved her dearly will choose to remember her better days and celebrate the earlier, happier seasons of her life  -  those long and happy years when she was “Midge” to her high-school girlfriends, “Grandma” and “GG” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and simply “Mom” and “Mother” to me. 

Once she turned 90, people often asked her why she still looked so good and how she had managed to live so long.  With a smile, she told everybody the same true thing.

Every night before dinner,” she would say, “I make myself a Manhattan with two ice cubes.”

There’s a lot more I could tell you about her:  how she won a couple of grand on the Irish Sweepstakes in the mid 60s and bought herself a flashy convertible with the winnings; how she taught our kids to play poker; how she hitchhiked in East Africa with me, and lots, lots more.   

On the beach in 1962
  But, as my high school journalism teacher taught me years ago, there comes a time when everybody’s story comes to an end and you just have to say:
-  30  -


  1. Well, Mel, another outstanding article. I found myself in similar circumstances (including Christmas in the nursing home) with my dad a year+ ago. No matter how old they get, when we lose our folks we still feel sad and lonely. Peace and future happiness to you. And enjoy the birthday tomorrow in whatever way you can.

  2. Peace, prayers and great memories. My sympathies, this is a beautiful memorial.

  3. She sounds lovely. A wonderful tribute, Mel!

  4. It sounds like she gave you so many beautiful memories - thank you for sharing her with us.

  5. Beautifully written piece about a beautiful lady. My mother loved herself a good Manhattan, too! She skipped the ice, though!

  6. Dear Mr. Wolfgang - My deepest condolences to you and your family. I remember your mother fondly, she was always engaging, quick with a quip and always very kind to me (my "in" was the perfect grandson). I've also had the pleasure of losing to her in a card game or two and are glad to have known her. My thoughts are with you.

  7. What a thoughtful and heartfelt tribute to your mother. I will have to share your mother's tip with my father as he is a big fan of Manhattans (the first drink I learned to make). I only recently found your blog and feel the same way I do when I find a new author and hope s/he has published a number of books for my reading pleasure. Thanks for sharing a bit of your mother with the rest of us.


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