The most important woman in my life left this Earth three weeks ago. Through my online classes, many people heard stories about my mom, met her, or spent virtual time in her living room. Though her dementia progressed over these last few years, they were some of the sweetest times I had with her. Because so much of who I am is due to her it feels right to honor her by sharing this, the eulogy I gave at her funeral…
“Good morning. Thank you for being here to remember, to honor and to celebrate my mom—our Mom—Mary Rickard Hughes. I’m Jurian. (You may know me better as Martha. I’m happy to answer to that, too.) On behalf of myself, my brother Charles, and my sister Meg, we are so grateful that you’re here.
In addition to being with us today, thank you for the many ways in which you showed up for our Mom, our Dad, or us—especially over these last few months and years. Thank you to Pastor Matthew for the way he inspired our parents, to this congregation that meant so much to both of them. Thank you to the friends and neighbors that looked out for Mary, that were kind, that were patient, that took time to visit or call or write a note or bring food or shovel a driveway. Thank you to family (loyal and loving grandchildren, joy-inducing great grandchildren, much-appreciated in laws and ex in-laws—Meg’s husband Mike, who literally moved in to take care of Mom; Charlie’s wife Kelley, who so graciously took over hosting our family gatherings; my partner David, who intrigued Mom and took such good care of me these last few months; Debbie Woods Greenfield, who has been so kind and helpful—to close-by neighbors, and to those who traveled far. Thank you, all, for all the ways you supported our Mom and Dad, and thank you for joining us today.
Unfortunately, it feels like we were all just here in this church together, to mourn the passing of my dad, Harold Hughes, who died in June. It’s not completely surprising, perhaps, that we’re here again so soon, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: The loss of our most treasured beloveds is both completely natural and unbelievably awful.
That said, my siblings and I are quite aware of the fact that we are the lucky ones. We got not one, but two, great parents. They weren’t saints, don’t get me wrong, but they were loving and loyal and devoted to one another and to us. Mom and Dad made a lot of sacrifices to keep those commitments. I’m quite sure that wasn’t always easy. And we are so grateful.
Today would have been Mom’s 95th birthday. No small feat to make it this far. But, again, not completely surprising. Mom was, as they say, a pistol. Small of stature—unbelievably small in these last years—but feisty. And fiery. Born in 1928, she was a child of the Depression. Growing up in those years made her a fighter. (I want to say “hard ass”, but we’re in church.) She was a “tomboy”, they used to say. (I think that’s probably not a PC word any longer, but that’s what she was. A spitfire.) She loved kickball, baseball, stick ball, kick the can. She grew up just around the corner, on Prospect Terrace, in what’s known as the Hiram Griggs House, and then later, the Jacob Crounse Inn, on 146, just past Gun Club Rd. Her dad managed the A&P, at the corner of Main and Maple, now Farmhouse Tap and Tavern. She was born here, grew up here, raised her family here, and lived almost all her life here in Altamont.
Had she been born 20 years later, Mom would have become a Phys Ed teacher, but in 1946 girls didn’t do such things, so, instead, she studied to be a school teacher. She taught music, chorus, and second grade—more appropriate pursuits for a young woman at the time.
When she went off to Potsdam, for college, her parents moved out West, to Arizona. Mom followed, finishing her schooling up out there, at Arizona State. But she’d come back East in the summers to waitress and to live at Albany Country Club. And it was there that she met a busboy, who would become her husband, Harold. (She actually dated his older brother Dick first, which I always imagined must have created some tension, but no one in the family seems to have held onto that.)
Mom’s love of sports never wavered. She became an avid tennis player, participating in clubs and tournaments all around town. She helped get a tennis court installed at what’s now Schilling Park. And Mom was a good player. And competitive. She played well into her 80s. Apparently, though she didn’t have a lot of power, she was notorious for strategy. She consistently beat younger players by using their power shots against them. I remember Dad saying that she very carefully let him win every tennis game they played together—until they were married. As soon as they were on their honeymoon, she let her true colors show. Then, he never won another game. Mom, in fact, had a tendency to take up sports that Dad took an interest in—skiing, running—and then surpass him. We’re pretty sure that Dad’s great love of golf in the last decades of his life was—at least partly—fueled by the fact that it was the one sport Mom never really took to.
Luckily, they shared a love for a lot of non-competitive activities, too. In their 40s and 50s they got very outdoorsy. They fell in love with the Adirondacks, and along with their good friends the Franzes, McCalls and Schiavos, they took up hiking—and then backpacking, canoeing, kayaking. They even did the Northville Placid Trail and some of the Appalachian Trail.
They got into travel a good deal, later in life as well. In addition to the years they lived in Heidelberg, early in their marriage, they made trips to Paris, London, Montreal, Holland, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Australia, Bermuda, Banff, Alaska, and numerous road trips across the U.S.
On one of those cross-country trips out West, Mom revealed one of the traits she’s perhaps most notorious for—frugality. Our Aunt Faith, Dad’s sister, tells the story of Mom, proudly finding—in a casino in Las Vegas—the one and only One Cent slot machine. She and Dad happily played it all day long.
I don’t want to say that Mom was cheap, but she sure liked to save a dollar. Or a few pennies. For years we tried to explain that it didn’t make sense for her to spend money on gas driving all over the county just to save ten cents on a sale item here and another one there, but our arguments fell on deaf ears. The woman loved a bargain.
When my college roommate provided Mom with a new “hip” name for The Salvation Army (La Sal A) it gave Mom’s old passion a new lease on life. She fully embraced her love of thrift stores after that. She flat-out refused to spend money on herself. Dad would try to spoil her, get her to indulge, but Mom would have none of it. ‘Supreme Court Judge’s Wife’ be damned; she wasn’t going to let a title stand in the way of her saving money.
And though Mom may have been “economically prudent”, shall we say, she was always generous when it came to her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. We didn’t have a lot of luxuries growing up, but we never wanted for anything either.
If she was a bit of a penny pincher, Mom was incredibly generous in other ways. She spent endless hours hitting tennis balls with me—with all of us. She did the same with each of her grandchildren. I’m afraid none of us inherited her athletic abilities or her love of the piano—but she kept trying!
One of her greatest joys over the last few years was her great grandchildren. She loved to sit down at her piano next to the great grandkids, when they were barely big enough to sit on the piano bench themselves, and watch them bang away. She taught me to sew, Charlie to play tennis—and cook (sort of), Meg to embroider, Meg’s daughter Nellie to cross-stitch.
She found so many ways to be creative. A domestic goddess, Meg called her—Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart. Despite my dad’s outrageously limited palate Mom kept trying new and innovative dishes—Baked Alaska, fondue. (Though it’s her Sally Butler Busy Day Cake, which I will miss the most.) She took up quilting, rug braiding, decoupage, flower arranging, wreath making, you name it. She created whole bedrooms from scratch—sewing curtains and bed spreads from patterns, refinishing and painting furniture. I had the most amazing homemade wardrobe all through elementary and junior high. What she couldn’t bring herself to buy me she would make by hand.
That generosity extended beyond our house, too. Mom was a “perpetual volunteer”— substitute teacher; volunteer school librarian; a Cub, Boy and Girl Scout leader. She tended Altamont’s gardens for years as a member of the Garden Club. She helped the elderly through Community Caregivers and Albany Guardian Society. She was always looking out for neighbors, bringing meals to the sick, and “adopting” seniors in need of attention. Aunt Faith recalls looking around many a Thanksgiving table to see some lone, almost-forgotten, extended family member who Mom had brought back into the fold.
Ahead of her time and a throwback, all in one great lady, my sister said of Mom. A tomboy and a gracious housewife. A fierce competitor who knew when to let Dad be “the man of the family”. A spendthrift who gave so generously of her time and talent. A self-deprecator who championed her kids, grandkids and great grandkids—even as she made sure not to let any of us think too much of ourselves…She was a wonderfully complicated woman. She would be appalled that I’ve been talking about her all this time.
You are kind to listen.
And as difficult as it would be for her to hear—she deserves it. So thank you.
If you would indulge me one last thing—I know this is an unusual request, but today is Mom’s 95th birthday. There is some synchronicity in that. She so loved to sing. I know she would be delighted if we would all sing to her one last time…
(all sing) “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Mary, Happy Birthday to you”
Happy Birthday, Mama. We love you.
Jurian Hughes, Eulogy for Mary Rickard Hughes, Altamont Reformed Church, Altamont, NY, April 15, 2023.