For My Mom: Dance On Donna Sue

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Madonna Sue Barr Hilligoss dressed to the nines as she always was. Lanphier High School class reunion, Springfield, Il

 

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations on Immortality.

 

 

My mother loved music and she loved dancing. All the music that has been played today are songs and artists that she enjoyed throughout her life. Mom was not always good at articulating her feelings and thoughts, but she loved music and dancing from the time she was born. In a way, all of these songs are a part of her, who she was as a person, her thoughts, her fears, her passions, her loves. In short, all of the music is our way of letting mom speak for herself through the music that she loved.

 

I was lucky enough to have two parents who introduced me to a lot of the good music and musicians from their times, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Anyone who knows me understands how important music and live music are in my life, as they are for Kevin and were for Sean, and we can thank mom and dad for that. Mom and dad took me to see my first concert at the age of 10 when we went to see Neil Diamond at the old Checkerdome in St.Louis. Dad and I have talked about this and I believe the facts support it, but I believe my first memory as a child that I remember vividly was August 16, 1977 when I was three years old. I remember riding in a car with my mom and looking up at her across the seat as she wept, tears streaming down her face as she heard the news on the radio that Elvis Presley had died at the age of 42. I think it stuck out to me because as a child, your parents are these huge personalities that dominate our lives and to see my mom for the first time as something less than perfect, as a vulnerable, earthly being was shocking to a three year old boy.

 

 

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Mom doing the Twist with Chubby Checker, Alton Argosy, 1995

 

Mom loved to dance and watching her on the dance floor was like watching poetry in motion as she effortlessly glided over the dance floor. When my mom and Aunt Glenda were little girls, our Grandfather Hubert and Grandmother Ivy taught them how to dance….swing dances, slow dances including the waltz and square dance. Instead of getting baby sitters, they would take the girls with to the dances and taught them how to dance, little by little, piece by piece. And from there, mom took off on her own, dancing up a storm at school dances, weddings, social gatherings and on and on. One of my favorite things as a kid was when we went to a wedding and we got see mom and dad out on the dance floor, it seemed so effortless as they worked in perfect tandem with big grins on their faces. When Bruce Springsteen  was just a boy, his family came from very humble beginnings and they did not have much in the way of worldly possessions, but his mom Estelle loved music and always had the radio on and would grab her kids and dance around the kitchen and living room. So on the night of that concert, when he looked down into that fans eyes, he was remembering all those moments of dancing with his mom as a child and relived it in front of 30,000 people. Just as when mom took to the dance floor, she was remembering all those great moments of dancing with her dad and mom so many years ago.

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Save The Last Dance was written by Doc Pomus, one of the most famous and prolific song writers of the 20th century, many of them made famous by the Drifters and Elvis. But what was ironic about it was even though he wrote all of these great songs that included a lot of different styles and rhythms like calypso, salsa, two step, cha cha, Doc himself couldn’t dance because he had suffered from polio as a child and walked with crutches. But his wife loved to dance, and they would go to clubs and watch as she danced with one guy after another, always with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye because he knew that no matter how many people she danced with, she was going home with him.

 

When they were younger, mom and dad would go to social dances with a group of somewhat older people. During the dance, all of the guys would be clamoring and lining up to dance with mom, this young, beautiful vivacious girl who could dance so well. And be the gracious guy he was, dad would let them dance with her while he was left to dance with the other wives. And as he told me, “I’d look across the dance floor watching all these other guys have the time of their life dancing with her and me dancing with other women, but I didn’t want to dance with them, I wanted to dance with my wife.” No matter how many other guys she danced with, she was always going home with him, so she always saved the last dance for him.

 

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Every time I’ve lost someone in my life, I like to think of their small personality traits to give myself something to hold onto and help jump start my memory a little.

 

  • Some of her Favorite Movies included: Turner and Hooch, Casper, Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair To Remember, Somewhere in Time, Dr.Zhivago and Out of Africa. She loved watching Dancing With The Stars and American Idol.

 

  • She worked as a lifeguard while living in Springfield, As a teenager, she was a babysitter earning 50 cents an hour watching 6 kids. She worked as a personal assistant to State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego and served as an aide to the Speaker of the Illinois House. She got to meet Muhammad Ali who came to the state capitol to give a speech. Even though she had previously thought he was loud and obnoxious, she came home and told dad that he was a very nice man, very articulate and very handsome. She wanted to be a funeral director and even went to the school for a tour before deciding not to pursue it.

 

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  • In 1968, mom and dad attended an event held for US Senator Charles Percy. They went through the greeting line and Mr.Percy took her hand at the same time as the Mayor of Springfield interrupted and proceeded to bend Percy’s ear.  After about 5 minutes, mom turned to dad and whispered, “He has been holding my hand for 5 minutes.”  Dad looked over her shoulder and SURE enough Percy was holding her hand.  Percy looked dad in the eye and said, “And I’m enjoying every second of it!”

 

  • She worked for Illinois State Senator Bob Mitchler from Oswego, Illinois as his personal assistant and secretary

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  • When they were young, Easter was a special holiday for her and her sister and parents …new outfits including hats and patent leather shoes, a church service followed by an Easter Egg Hunt in the iris’s that ringed their house in Mattoon. When I was kid, she always made Easter special for us with colored eggs, egg hunts, baskets and plenty of marshmallow Peeps.
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Hubert, Iva, Glenda Lou and Madonna Sue Barr, SPringfield, Il 1958

  • When they were first married, mom and dad spent $13 a week on groceries. She could cook 4 things: fried hot dogs, fried hamburgers, deep fried shrimp and grilled cheese that she broiled instead of toasting in a skillet. (Correction, my aunt Ruth said she could also make iced tea and angel food cake 🙂

 

  • She had many boyfriends and suitors before she met dad including her first crush, Billy Gas from Mattoon.

 

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  • She was dad’s designated driver, refusing to drink other than a sloe gin fizz every once in a while

 

 

  • The two people outside of our aunt Glenda who knew her the longest are Bill and Norma Thomas, very good friends of her parents. Bill called her Donnie Pig but doesn’t know why, just a colorful nickname, but one that carried her through her life.
  • She argued with a bank loan officer about being able to sign for a loan to buy furniture by herself without having her husband cosign which was standard for the time in the middle 60s.

 

  • She didn’t like it when people in public life spoke out such as Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, or politicians and yet she lived her life as a poster child for Women’s Equality and the ERA by working hard all of her life, always dressing well and carrying herself in a very professional manner while at the same time, raising three boys and a husband, some could argue she was raising 4 boys 🙂

 

Mom with boys black and white

Standing in the half light with her three boys, Rochester, Il

  • Mom and dad met while attending college at Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, Illinois. They first met in 1963 on a snowy cold December night. Her parents had bought her a black and white 1960 Nash Metropolitan. The battery to her car was dead as she stood in the parking lot of Blair Hall and dad happened to be walking across campus. As he approached her car, she asked if he had jumper cables. He went back to his car to get them and after searching for a time, found the battery under the front seat and jump started her car for her and as they say, the rest is history.

 

Mom and dad wedding day

Wedding Day, 1965, Springfield, Il

 

A Note of Gratitude

While everyone is gathered here, on behalf of the family, we want to thank everyone for the kindness shown to mom and dad and Kevin and I and the rest of the family after Sean’s passing two years ago, many of whom are here today and have done the same now……at a time when terrible things are happening in the world on a daily basis and we see so much darkness and pain around us, it’s easy to focus on the negatives and we lose sight of all the beauty and kindness in the world.  The things I witnessed during the last 2 years echo many of mom’s own thoughts and traits…. Be kind, be compassionate, love your friends and family, take care of yourself and take care of those around us.

 

Life of Service- Giving yourself to others…making sacrifices of yourself, your pride, your ego, your own interests in life, your own wishes and desires to help others. She served her life raising three kids and being a good wife, a good sister and a good daughter. And in the end, she served another human being through the gift of her liver as an organ donor, giving someone else a second chance at life. In the last 5 years, I have lost both of my in laws who I loved very much and watched their daughter Kim serve them on a daily basis, helping them through their time of need. In the last 2 years, I’ve witnessed our father do the same for our mom and I want to thank him. Many people have helped during these hard months and years and I want to say a special thanks to our neighbor and friends Diane and Jeff. Diane helped mom in countless ways, right up until the end. And also to our friend Karin Witt who helped both mom and dad in many ways in the last few years. For everyone who helped, you were performing an Act of love…..words and concern are important but actions speak louder than words and nothing speaks louder than an act of love.

When we are born, we start with a collection of family members we are born to: mother and father, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. As you grow older, you develop a secondary circle of neighbors, friends, school mates that form a security blanket of people in your life who you spend time with, those you trust, those you share your feelings and thoughts, those you share your time with. As years pass and time rolls on, one by one, you start to lose those around you. However, for those of us who are lucky enough, your family can grow to include people not related by blood, but related through the heart and kindness. There is the family we are born with and then there’s the family we grow older with. Through the size of her heart, mom had many people around her I consider family including surrogate daughters and sons from our days at the restaurant, an adopted son in Sean’s best friend, kids she volunteered with at the Alton schools, neighbors and people she mentored over the years. I think mom often struggled with issues of insecurity and low self-esteem, never quite measuring up to the high standards she held for others and herself, but as you can tell from the amount of people here today, she was truly loved and respected by those around her, whether through blood or friendship and in the end, that is one of the best measures of a person.

 

Family with Mike, 2016

I would like to close with this from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I depart as air…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Mom as little girl(2)

Last Waltz:

She’s not going in the ground, per her wishes, she will be cremated but like Whitman said, she’ll never be far from us, stopped somewhere waiting for us. I know that she now has joined her mom and dad and Sean and they are dancing above, free of physical pain and enjoying the music. For those of us like mom who love music, it’s an ever present part of our lives, bringing companionship, inspiration and enjoyment, the melody and rhythm running beneath our feet like a river, a river of life transporting us from one side of shore to the other.

Musicians come and go, bands come and go, the fans and listeners come and go, but the music always plays on, the band plays on, and the dancers dance on. Sometimes the song might be a shuffle, a Texas two-step, sometimes a cha cha or the twist or sometimes in ¾ waltz time…But whatever the rhythm, rise from your seats, feel the water under your feet and dance on my friends, dance on.

And one last thing, if you’re out looking for love, make sure to bring your dancing shoes and a really good set of jumper cables, you never know when love might walk in.

 

Mom and dad dancing 2017

One More Waltz, Grafton, Il, Father’s Day 2017. Music and 3/4 time supplied by the Eclectic Horseman Stan Corliss

 

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