Before Mom was my Mom

I found someone else in a faded, 1953 letter.

M.M. O'Keefe
4 min readMay 14, 2017


That’s my mother, apparently a different woman on the left than the right.

Before she died, Mom lived the life of a self-described hermit, leaving her house only to tend to her gardens or buy groceries.

She chain-smoked Salem cigarettes that turned her teeth yellow and listened to talk radio all day long and in the middle of the night, too.

A 3 a.m. alarm woke her from her couch to hear the mellow voice of Art Bell, whose shows about the paranormal kept insomniacs awake until the sun rose. The few times she did interact with family or neighbors, she would recount as gospel things she learned from Bell on shows (don’t listen to them on YouTube or you, too, may believe) with titles like Robert “Bugs” Morgan: the man who killed bigfoot” and “Jonathan Reed’s Alien in the Freezer.”

She once pulled my young, impressionable sons aside to tell them with all seriousness that aliens are not only real, they are handsome beyond any description a human could come up with. To this day, the phrase “handsome aliens” is a private family joke that brings smiles to our faces as we recall the quirky, reclusive and opinionated woman we loved.

I recently discovered what seemed to be another woman with my Mom’s name, enthusiastic, outgoing and crazy about boys.

The letter was dated October 16, 1953, to her sister, written on Cardinal Stritch College stationery, in Milwaukee, where she was a freshman art major.

Could this be the same woman I remember as my Mom?

The three most important things in her life appeared to be, in order of importance, “MEN,” “REAL CUTE BOYS” and“NICE BOYS.” How she met so many of them at an all-women’s school I don’t know.

Her second paragraph begins: “Would you like to hear all about my date life”?

A few lines that made me laugh:

  • “So I’ve met a lot of MEN.”
  • “Is Dickie a dream in that picture. I showed it to the girls and Itsy very Nifty from Iowa, said he “sent shivers up and down her spine — just LOOKING at him” and the others just swooned. But I told them he was my sister’s so — —”
  • “I gained 7 lbs in two weeks so I’ll have to go on a diet. How do you do it?”
  • “Believe it or not, I’ve been told about 10 times that I have a “sexy” voice. Isn’t that killing!”
  • “I also saw Jack and I’ve got a “terrific crush” on him. It’s terrible!”
  • “Be good and take it easy on the MEN. Will tell you of the next adventures.”

Mom on adventures, with MEN?

This raised a few quasi-philosophical questions in my mind.

  1. What turned Mom from an outgoing college freshman full of optimism into an elderly recluse with a pessimistic world view?
  2. What if we could be frozen in time as exuberant, wide-eyed freshmen in college, not yet experiencing crushing disappointment, intractable injustice and occasional happiness? Paraphrasing Barbra Streisand, “If we had the chance to do it all again, again and again, tell me, would we, could we?”
  3. Are we truly the same person throughout our lives or are we actors playing different roles in different seasons?
  4. Did Mom consider Dad a MAN, a real cute boy, a nice boy or none of the above?
  5. What happened to that sexy voice? On second thought, it makes me uncomfortable imagining my mother with a sexy voice.

I ran across another envelope, this one a card from me, in 1985, just before I got married. My relationship with Mom was rather tense at that time, but I tried to express my love for her:

“Mom, I want you to know how much you have, and still do, mean to me. You have been there since my beginning and have sacrificed for me. You have always been there for me and I want you to know I notice. I’ve grown, we’ve grown and changed, through some good times, and some bad. But I want you to know one thing. Wherever I am, you are my Mom and I am your son and I love you.”

The front of the card had a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is just beyond your grasp … but if you will sit down quietly may alight upon you.”

Mom wasn’t always my Mom.

I wish I could have met that 1953 version of my mother, the woman with the sexy voice, a butterfly upon her head. I sit down on a park bench and have a talk with her, a different woman, in a different time.



M.M. O'Keefe

I write about faith, fathering, sports, recovery and history — hoping to inspire you.