Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Betty Pierce-A Woman for All Seasons!
My mother-in-law was the youngest child of Katharine and John Marshall Vanneman, with a seven year gap between her and her sister Ellie, and two brothers Marshall and Jim. She had a happy childhood playing with her Vanneman cousins who lived right around the corner. There was a tennis club down the street, and Mom and her siblings all played tennis competitively. Her dedication and practice resulted in a Cynwyd Club singles championship, and she played in national tournaments as well. She also played doubles in tournaments with her sister El as her partner, and they won their share of matches. In later years she faithfully took her grandchildren to the Malvern Prep tennis courts and taught them how to play. Her mentoring helped our daughters have enjoyable high school tennis experiences on the school team.
Mom studied piano, but didn’t have the patience to practice, and gave it up, something she regretted. She loved to reminisce about Sunday afternoons at her family home, where informal concerts happened regularly. Her father played the violin, and her siblings also played instruments. Family and friends would drop in for an afternoon of music making. Mom did pursue her dream of being a musician in her late 60’s. She learned to play the guitar, and joined a music group that played for archdiocesan charismatic Masses and events. She attended all her grandchildrens' concerts and musicals. As an enthusiastic fan, she made tape recordings (of very dubious quality) of the concerts and played them often. She even made a 1600 mile road trip in 2000 (at age 87!) to be in the audience when her granddaughters appeared on an EWTN show.
During her teenage years, Mom’s family faced some daunting challenges as her Ivy League educated brothers both developed serious mental illness. Their faith and love as a family got them through many difficult times. Mom faithfully visited her brothers every week, and brought them to the Pierce home about once a month for visits and holidays. She spoke of her brothers sympathetically and respectfully. Marshall died before I came on the scene, but her devotion to her brother Jim was obvious. Our girls remember trips to see Uncle Jim, which often included ice cream cones at the dairy store.
Mom was a loyal friend, and had an enthusiasm for life and warmth and interest in people that attracted others to her. She loved growing up in St Matthias Parish, and was chosen as the May Queen for the May Procession at the end of eighth grade. Mom saved a letter from her grade school teacher, Sr Mary Grace, written in 1979. Sister shared some recollections about her student over fifty years earlier. " Your reply to the question of what you were going to do when you grow up was that you were going to get married and have ten children." Sister also wrote, "When we accepted the first colored child who asked to attend St Matthias, you were the one at the first recess period who took her by the hand and played "double tag".
Mom loved to write notes of encouragement to family and friends. She was very good at keeping in touch and remembering birthdays. She told us stories about parties she had attended on Boathouse Row. Sometimes she would stay up all night on Saturday at parties, and then go to Mass at St John the Evangelist in Center City very early on Sunday morning. It is hard to imagine Mom staying up all night though, since she was a firm believer in the early to bed, early to rise rule most of her life. Here’s an excerpt from a poem written by one of her friends:
“ To Betty
In athletics she is noted
In her tennis she is quoted
To her friends she’s always loyal
And her dispositions royal
She’s a pal!
She can dance in perfect rhythm
As for men she’s always with em;
For on parties she’s a riot
While the rest of us are quiet.
She’s a pal!”
In her late twenties Mom fell in love with Jack Pierce, serving in the Army. They were married in the rectory of St Mathias Church on February 20, 1942, since Dad was not a Catholic. After a brief honeymoon in Atlantic City, they were separated. A month later, Dad obtained one more weekend pass for a blissful two days. Then Dad was gone, serving in World War II in England and North Africa for more than two years!!! Mom soon realized she was pregnant. John was eighteen months old before he laid eyes on his dad. She lived with her family during those years, and her sister was a big help. Like many couples during those trying times, they practiced self sacrifice and perseverance.
After the war, Mom and Dad first lived in Kansas City, very simply, with lots of love but not much money. Dad started writing his annual Christmas poems to his bride, the best gifts she would ever receive. They moved to Malvern, two doors down from St Patrick Church. Mom helped to start the Women’s Guild of St Patrick’s. During those years they had a tragedy when their second son was born with an incomplete brain, and died soon after birth. What a terrible sorrow! Four years later, when Mom got pregnant with Fred, she was advised to have an abortion. She was horrified and immediately found another doctor. Fred was born safely, welcomed into this world by his brave and faith-filled mother!
When John was 8, and Fred an infant, the Pierces moved to Paoli to a wonderful neighborhood. The neighbors were friendly and had lots of gatherings, especially memorable New Year’s Eve parties at Connemara, Sherry Pierce’s childhood home. The Maguire and Pierce fathers and sons even went on a week long camping trip to the Poconos. It rained the whole week, which made cooking over a wood fire exceedingly difficult, but didn’t dampen their lifelong friendship! Mom and Dad helped with community Fourth of July celebrations, and Mom taught dance lessons to the neighborhood kids. They also played bridge regularly, with Peg Maguire and Abbot Nietzel.
Mom faithfully attended Mass, and raised her sons in the faith. She became a member of the Third Order of St Norbert’s, and prayed the Liturgy of the Hours during those years. After eighteen years of marriage her husband Jack decided to become a Catholic, a decision that made his family very happy. Fred was the altar server at the Mass when his father was received into the Church and made his First Communion.
Mom taught her sons to play tennis, and supported them in their activities. They both became excellent dancers, as a result of their mandatory enrollment in her dancing classes.
In the domestic arena, Mom did have her struggles at times. She would prefer to watch Laurence Welk on television any day over Julia Child. She loved to have a cocktail with Dad before dinner. The unfortunate consequence was often overcooked or burned dinners! Dad wrote in one of his poems:
“Our home is not just rooms and roof,
above all this it stands aloof.
It is, we all agree, made up of things material
but our Mommy puts it in the realm of the ethereal.
Where you can doff your coat, let down your hair
Whether in grief or joy, she’s always there.
Some trivial things may slip her mind
but love and care for her family are ne’re left behind.
We’ve had our moments, both gay and sad,
we’ve got Johnny and Freddie, both good and bad.
to our faults and our virtues she’s not blind
but love and care for her family are ne’re left behind.”
Another poem written the year of their 25th wedding anniversary said:
“You started it all in Forty-Two
in something borrowed, something blue
through the years, who is your most ardent fan
of course you know, just the old man.”
John went off to college, then the Navy, and Fred was left at home with Mom and Dad. In 1968 John married Sherry, the girl next door, and a year later came Jacqueline, the first girl in the family! Fred started college and they moved to a smaller house in Paoli, not too far from the old neighborhood. John and Sherry’s family grew, and they moved to California.
Fred graduated from Villanova and started his first job in York, so Mom and Dad were empty nesters. One weekend in 1975, Fred came home with some exciting news to share about his deeper conversion to the Catholic faith, and the “baptism in the Spirit.” Wouldn’t you know, the next week Mom and Dad were at a charismatic prayer meeting at the Daylesford Abbey, jumping right in. Mom and Dad were open to growing in their faith, and enjoyed the enthusiastic singing and prayer. Dad wrote in his poem that year,
“Carry on old gal never get bored
Sing happy songs and Praise the Lord.”
About this time I came in to the picture. I met Betty Pierce in July 1975, and was so impressed with her warmth and friendliness. Fred and I were married a year later, and he began working for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Fred’s salary was about half of his earnings in the business world, but with his parents’ support he pursued his dream of working for the church. Mom and Dad rented us the second floor apartment of their house in Malvern for a reasonable rate. Within 10 months, Dad received a very serious diagnosis of bone cancer. Dad and Mom were a devoted team, as he pursued chemotherapy, and countless doctor visits and painful procedures. Our first child Jenny was born in July 1977, and brought much joy to her grandparents living below. I remember Jen was born at 430 am. Fred and I had finally collected ourselves enough to make a momentous call to his parents. Mom, impatient for news, had already called the hospital and knew all about her new granddaughter! She was a woman of action, with a very generous heart who did everything she could to make my adjustment as a new mother easier. She also cared for Dad tirelessly, as the cancer spread in his bones, making it harder to get around. She praised him for his courage in the face of his illness. In a letter she wrote to us years later she said, “He was suffering with bone cancer, which is so very painful, but he did it with a smile.” Her favorite song was “This is the Day that the Lord has Made.” Here’s an excerpt from Dad’s Christmas poem:
“To make life worthwhile she did struggle and strive
Praise the Lord she made it through thirty-five
So much has transpired in this year of Seventy-seven
Just a few more steps on the way to heaven
Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a person like thee.”
I will always be grateful to Mom for modeling for me a faithful marriage, through sickness and health, until death parted her and Dad. During her life, she grew in confident trust in God’s providence through difficult times. Dad’s last poem is a great tribute to his wife:
“Someone said, quite thoughtfully, we are sharing our cross
If that isn’t true, oh what a great loss
Dad may be down, but not out, on that bet your purse
He’s joined up with Mom, a heaven sent nurse
Through it all, her love, she never let fade
This is the day that the Lord has made.”
It is never easy to watch a loved one suffer, but through Mom’s devotion and the help of hospice, Dad was able to receive care at home until the last week of his life, in September 1979. Mom really wanted his funeral to have a celebratory air, since her beloved Jack was finally home.
A couple of years later, Fred and I were visiting my family on Christmas Day. Late in the day, we received a phone call from Mom, informing us that her kerosene heater had exploded and her apartment had caught fire! Thank God Mom was okay! She could not praise the Malvern Fire Dept enough for their quick response. She handled the whole experience like a trooper.
In 1982 Fred and I bought our first home, and Mom became landlord to a series of tenants. Her most challenging was a young man who had a thriving marijuana crop growing in the upstairs closet! After this experience, Mom was more than happy to take us up on our offer to move into a house on Line Road together, into a little suite of her own.
After Dad died, Mom obtained a part time job as a sacristan at Malvern Retreat, and didn’t retire until her mid 80’s. She loved her wonderful coworkers, and enjoyed meeting some great retreat masters, of whom Eileen George became her personal favorite. Mom was in her glory as she tooled around the beautiful Malvern Retreat grounds in a golf cart. She must have had a special crew of guardian angels who assisted her, because she played loose with some driving rules. Once I was pumping gas in Malvern, and watched in disbelief as Mom barely slowed down and drove right past a stop sign. My husband had also been instructed in driving by his mother, which explained a lot about his habits behind the wheel!
Throughout their adult lives Mom and her sister El (Mimi) had always spent time together, visiting each other at least once a week. In her seventies Mom traveled to Switzerland and England with Mimi and their cousin Hill, who had been Mom’s childhood playmate. When Mimi turned 90, her health started to fail. Mom tirelessly worked with relatives to get Mimi moved from her apartment to an assisted living facility about 10 minutes from our house. Mom was extremely attentive and visited her sister daily. With Mom’s help, Mimi lived contently at her assisted living home for four years, and died peacefully there. They truly loved each other! For most of her life, though, it was always made very clear to Mom who was the older sister. They were very entertaining in their feisty conversations. Their biggest sisterly challenge came when Mom realized that she would have to insist that her legally blind sister give up her driver’s license. The fireworks from that intervention lasted for years.
When Mom’s time came to give up her license, she was amazingly docile, and made it easy for Fred. She was a very good sport about it! It was truly a deprivation, because Mom loved her independence. It was her habit to arrive at least 30 minutes early for 630 Mass. Now that she was dependent on Fred for her ride, they were lucky to pull into the parking lot at 6:29. Probably for the first time in her life, Mom experienced dashing into church with seconds to spare. When Fred started a new job that involved frequent travel, Mom found another ride, someone who had more of Mom’s idea of punctuality. Mom attended daily Mass, rain or shine, and then enjoyed breakfast after Mass with her friends. In the winter months, Mom found her way up our hilly driveway in the dark and chill, likely the only person on the roads. One snowy day she reported proudly that there were only four people at Mass that morning, and the others lived close enough to walk, so she was the only one who drove. On another occasion, our church maintenance man said,” Now, Mrs. Pierce, please be careful on this icy sidewalk. Can you take my arm?” Mom continued to stride fearlessly over the icy sidewalk, unassisted. She was a very determined woman!
Mom gave of herself cheerfully, and genuinely enjoyed sharing in whatever activity the family was up to. She really had a knack for living in the present moment and enjoying it. She fostered a close relationship with each of her grandchildren: Jacqueline, Jason, Jaye, Jennifer, Carolyn, Catherine, Greg, and John. She helped with babysitting, running errands, and pitching in, and seemed to thrive in family chaos. Basically, Mom delighted in supporting her family members in whatever way she could. She would even hold a pew for us at the Christmas Eve childrens' Mass each year, bravely fending off the hordes of people coveting those seats! After Mass, Mom hosted a simple and memorable Christmas Eve dinner for the Fred Pierce clan and assorted McDonnells. It was a tasty tradition, and eagerly anticipated every year!
Mom’s generosity extended to the church and community. She served as a lector for decades at St Patrick’s, helped out with RCIA and Bible studies, and was a member of the St Patrick’s charismatic prayer group during it’s entire existence. She made casseroles faithfully for St John’s Hospice. She loved competing in The Senior Olympics, and won her share of awards, as badminton champion.
Mom was so proud of her large extended family, and enjoyed the limelight as one of the oldest Vanneman relatives. She participated in a family genealogy group for years, and was fascinated to discover that she was actually part Swedish. She loved her hometown, and had a great routine in Malvern with all her friends and many relatives close by.
Life changed dramatically for Mom at the age of 91, when Fred sustained life threatening injuries and all of our worlds turned upside down. Mom could not comprehend the severity of Fred’s injuries, and that he would be considerably altered after his accident. We weren’t going back to our “old” life, and Fred wouldn’t be able to do what he once did. About 5 weeks into Fred’s stay in the critical care trauma unit, John and Sherry generously accepted Mom into their home, and she was uprooted to North Carolina. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and she felt like an exile for a while. She was surrounded by the love and support of John and his family, who included her in frequent family gatherings. After several months she was moved to a small assisted living facility, where the staff fell in love with her, their friendly and spunky oldest resident. Mom liked to stay busy, and the activities director could always count on Miss Betty’s participation, especially if dancing and music were involved. She eventually adjusted as best she could, but it was quite a curveball for someone in their nineties. Her last year or so she slowed down dramatically, and dozed off in her wheelchair often. “Cheer up, Old Gal, though the end is nearly in sight, with faith in the Lord you know it is bright.” (That’s an excerpt from one of Dad’s last poems). She was comforted in her last few days by the John Pierce clan, who prayed and sang and reminisced around her bedside. She went to the Lord in the middle of the night, very peacefully.
Mom lived a good long life, and had the blessing of loving parents and siblings, and a devoted husband. She enjoyed her growing family so much- her childrens’ children, and great grandchildren. She gave her all to God and her family. Life was a gift, and Mom made the most of it. She was an absolute treasure, and we were so blessed to have her until age 96. May we follow her good example! Thank you Mom, for being you!