For Mary, My Old Friend

Ryan Hilligoss, January 4, 2015

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

My old friend, you invited me in, and you treated me like kin

And you gave me a reason to go on

My old friend, thanks for inviting me in

My old friend, may this goodbye never mean the end

If we never meet again this side of life

In a little while, over yonder, where it’s peace and quiet

My old friend, I’ll think about you every now and then

Carl Perkins, My Old Friend

Christmas is over and a new year is dawning, with a calling for new beginnings and a fresh start. I received many gifts this year from my family, much more than I need but for which I am grateful, especially spending time with loved ones near and far. One gift I received this year was hearing a voice from the past, calling across the decades. My cousin Judy Bennett asked me to transfer a tape recording of her wedding ceremony from analog to digital. The event occurred May 27, 1961 in Humboldt, Illinois and the marriage was between Judy Hilligoss and David Bennett, and was recorded by family with a reel to reel recorder. While listening to the tape, I heard family members being interviewed including Judy’s mother, Mary Hilligoss, who was also my aunt. Her voice was much younger obviously, but her words and phrasing and humor and laughter were unmistakable. Hearing it was invaluable to me for many reasons including family history and historical interest, but mostly because Mary was a friend of mine who I haven’t heard since she passed away in 2007.
The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

Coincidentally, her birth date recently passed on what would have been her 92nd birthday. Mary Francis Cook was born December 28, 1922 in Humboldt, Il, daughter to Edward and Ruth Mitchell Cook. Her older sister Letha Cook Hilligoss was my grandmother and Mary and Letha married brother, Les and Robert Hilligoss respectively. So, Mary was my double aunt, either way you look at it. Humboldt, Illinois, for those not from the area reading this, is a small town along US Route 45 and the Illinois Central Railroad line in east central Illinois, south of Champaign, home of the University of Illinois. Mary and family spent many years living in Mattoon before Les moved his family to Edgewood, Il, south of Effingham, as part of his employment on the railroad.
Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with our extended Hilligoss family during birthdays, celebrations, family reunions and especially trips made to either Phoneix, Az where my grandparents moved in 1970 or around the state when they visited us here twice a year. They had a RV they used for many of their trips and when they came to town, Sean and I would climb aboard and head on down the road for unknown destinations. Opening the door to the RV with grandma Letha Hilligoss aboard, you were drawn into a world filled with smoke from her long, brown cigarettes she chain smoked, the aroma of fresh coffee brewing in the percolator, and never-ending chatter, whether anyone was present and listening or not. Often times, she would launch into a crazed rant filled with wild hand motions and unnamed characters, and Sean and I would look at each other not knowing if she were really talking to us and whether we should respond or not. More often than not, after travelling to some other towns, we would wind up in Edgewood to see Mary where they would park the RV and we would stay for 2 or 3 days before returning home. Grandma and Mary would spend hours at a time in the kitchen drinking coffee, doing the daily crossword puzzles and clipping coupons and sending in rebates, while we kids were left to our own walking the property, mowing the grass or watching TV. Due to their love of coupons, rebates and scoring a great deal, a simple trip to the IGA grocery store in Effingham which would have taken most people 15-30 minutes, turned into a three-hour journey as Letha and Mary walked down the aisles, closely inspecting each package they eyed, ensuring they had a coupon or could send in a rebate.

It was during these trips as a boy that I developed an appreciation and connection to the idea of extended family and a connection to the past and where I come from. During these trips, I developed a bond with my aunt Mary that lasted from childhood, through my college years and into adulthood when I had my own family. Mary and my grandmother Letha were like two peas in a pod in many respects including their love of coffee, smoking, cross words and family. However, their personalities were a contrast. Grandma was comfortable in her own skin, said what was on her mind with no filters, talked a blue streak, and walked through her life with her chin out letting the world know she wasn’t scared of much and would not back away from a situation. As a child growing up on her family farm, Letha would often times be ordered to handle chores in a certain fashion by her father Ed Cook, and if they weren’t handled the way he wanted, there would be consequences. And instead of taking her punishment and walking away, she would get back up again, stick her chin out as if to say, here I am, go ahead and knock me down again and I’ll just get back up. Mary on the other hand always had a grin on her face, was a little more quiet, had a nice, easy laugh. I always had the impression she looked up to her sister and often times followed her lead with caution.

 

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

While attending  Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, from 1993-1998(yes I graduated in 4 years for anyone doing the math but stayed for a 5th year to pursue journalism), I made many a 60 mile trip down I-57 to see my aunt on weekends. Some trips were with my grandparents, before grandma died in 1996, but many were on my own. Being a fairly quiet and introverted person, going to Edgewood for a few days allowed me some peace and quiet in a warm, cozy home and some good companionship with my aunt who, after my grandma died, I thought of as a surrogate grandmother. I would usually call her mid-week and tell her I was thinking about coming down if she wasn’t busy, and usually she didn’t have any plans. When I arrived, she always had a weekend supply of baloney and cheese and Coke and coffee waiting for me. If I came down on Friday night, she worked in the kitchen at the Edgewood Opry from 6-10pm. The Opry was a local version of the Grand Ol’ Opry with local musicians filling the stage and local singers coming up from the audience and singing their favorite song whether gospel, folk or country. Despite my introverted nature and stage fright, I even got up and sang on two different occasions, Waylon Jenning’s Luchenbach, Texas and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Luchenbach got a nice round of applause while This land only got polite gold claps which confused me at the time but I now understand that the crowd was made up of local farmers who owned and farmed hundreds of acres and might not have been keen on Woody’s lyrics about signs saying no trespassing and private property being a violation of what he saw as the country standing for. The musicians were happy to have a place to play live and the talent level of the singers ranged from excellent, trained vocalists to….hmmm…how to put this politely….not stage ready. On one occasion, I went along with my grandparents and I sat next to my grandfather Robert Samuel Hilligoss and when I rather screechy singer came on, he turned to me and said, “God is that awful….but since I can’t sing, I guess I better keep quiet.”

I would spend time studying and reading while she watched tv and then we’d work the crossword puzzles after the newspapers were delivered. Then we might head into Effingham for dinner at Neimerg’s Steakhouse and a trip to the grocery store. Or we might have lunch with her girlfriends at Pat’s Restaurant in Farina. Occasionally on Saturday nights, we would pick up two of her friends, Virginia and Mary, and drive to Vandalia for the Saturday night dance in the local roller rink, complete with sawdust on the floor and a local band supplying songs from Hank Williams, Patsy Kline, Ray Price and Kitty Wells. It was there I learned to dance the waltz to Waltz Across Texas With You, the Texas Two Step to Lovesick Blues and the polka to The Orange Blossom Special. The only time I ever danced with my grandmother Letha was at the roller rink. I can’t remember the song the band played, but I can still see the smile on her face as we twirled around the floor. On Sunday mornings, Mary would fix me breakfast consisting of coffee, toast and Malt O Meal, still my favorite, and only, hot cereal. After watching some television, her favorite shows were Walker, Texas Ranger, Dr.Quinn Medicine Woman and Reba, and helping with some chores around the house and in the yard, I would pack my bag, say goodbye with a hug, head back to school and then return for another visit every few months. Looking back on it, I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed going there so much was she gave me the space and understanding to be who I was at the time, as a young adult.

"I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. "Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

“I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. “Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

After graduating and moving back to Godfrey, I still visited but not as often and not as long. Then when I moved to Wheaton to be with my then girlfriend, and now wife of 14 years, Kim and I would make the 4 hour drive down to spend a day or two visiting. After our kids were born, Graham in 2004 and Aurora Eva Rose in 2006, we still made visits, usually for the Hilligoss reunion in June and the annual fish fry held at Mary’s house for her family every October. While I had developed my own family and home, the connection to family remained and I made the time and took the energy to spend moments with who was important to me and my life, just Mary and both sets of my grandparents and uncles and aunts did throughout my life. The last time I saw Mary was in a hospital after me, my dad, uncle Rick and brother Kevin had visited her at her assisted living facility and she had a mini stroke. Before the ambulance took her away, she looked at me and had no knowledge of who I was at that moment, but knew who my dad was due to her mind and memory playing tricks on her. After she was taken to the hospital and had recovered, I went in to see her and she looked at me with eyes of recognition and smiled and told me she was glad I was there. After asking about where Kim and the kids were and telling her they were back home in Cortland, she told me in her quiet, forceful but loving, and grandmotherly manner, “Go home and take care of those kids.” She always knew what was important and how to say it.

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary passed away in 2007, but I think of her often, especially when I make myself Malt O Meal, when Kim makes Mary’s jello/yogurt whipped pie, when I hear an  old country song on the radio or when I sit in her Lazy Boy recliner that sits in my living room. Mary was many different things to many different people throughout the stages of her life: daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, grandmother and aunt. And while she was indeed my aunt on two accounts and served as my grandmother in spirit after Letha passed, what she meant most to me was a friend, and that is what I miss most. I miss calling my friend on the phone on a random Wednesday afternoon and hearing her answer with a hearty, “Yeaahhhh,” when she recognized my voice. I miss going to the Edewood Opry and working with her in the kitchen on Friday nights while we listened to the music of local musicians and talked to friends and neighbors. I miss having lunch with her at Neimerg’s in Effingham. I miss dancing with her at the roller rink in Vandalia. I miss seeing her fill her hummingbird feeders that hung outside her windows. And I miss working on crossword puzzles with her at the kitchen table and watching her gaze out the window as her mind searched for the right words to write down and became lost in her thoughts and memories. And now as I type this, I gaze out of a window lost in my thoughts of Mary, my old friend.

Postscript
Below is a poem that my grandmother Hilligoss kept on her refrigerator at home in Phoenix and I think was a message left by her to her family. I read this at both her and Mary’s funeral services. Often times when outdoors and I feel a good, strong wind blowing in my face or when I see bids and geese flying through the air, I think of them both and other family members we have lost, and I know they are still with us.

Do not stand at my grave and weep 

I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning’s hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die.
Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary's lazy boy

Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary’s lazy boy

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