Her name was Veronica. She loved corn on the cob, catfish, frogs’ legs and Dr Pepper. She adored big hats and white bugle beads and pearls, and she always kept an embroidered hankie, a piece of gum and a $5 bill in her purse. More on that down the line.

She was a big fan of polka dots. In her closets among standard items, she always had a black dress with white polka dots, a blue one, a green one and a white one with navy polka dots.

I thought I had long ago given up writing about her. She’s in my book, dozens of columns and almost always in my mind and heart. There isn’t anything new to say about her, but then here comes Mother’s Day, and who else should I be writing about?

Veronica Devine, mother of J.P. Devine, is seen in this undated photo from a news clipping. Photo courtesy of J.P. Devine

Veronica Elizabeth Conlon was the second daughter of Jim Conlon, one of the six Conlon brothers who, with the exception of Jim, came to the coal mines of Pennsylvania from Ireland and grew quite wealthy.

Jim instead came down to St. Louis, longing to be a river boat pilot, which he did.

Jim married Mary Ellen Daly, a girl from County Kerry, had two daughters, and soon went into business with another man and owned a boatyard. You know those paddle-wheelers with the big whistle you see in old movies? Veronica’s father built those.

Jim Conlon made a lot of money and had all his shirts, colored linen with white collars and cuffs, tailor-made. He bought Mary Ellen a house, his two daughters a pony, put them in a Catholic girls’ school, and went about building, gambling and, after Mary Ellen died young, drinking.

Depending on whom you ask, Jim lost his boatyard at one of those famous Mississippi River boat poker tables or in one of those famous floods, and with it, his money.

He died when Mom was 17, and she had to go to work in the office of the factory that made his custom shirts. She never forgot that and mentioned it often. One day while living with her sister in a boarding house, Mom found a $5 bill in the street. She put it in her purse and considered it an omen of good times to come.

Mom and I were very much alike and had a complicated life together. She had a good 27 years with my father, a naval engineering officer 20 years her senior. With Pop by her side, she enjoyed the Navy life as the “belle of the ball,” dining on fine cuisine in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, where she created seven children and regained her childhood strut and poise. She never had another pony, but she filled her closets with a bevy of polka-dotted dresses.

Things went bad again for her when Pop fell dead on the street four blocks from the house, six months before Pearl Harbor and in the middle of her menopause.

With both girls married, five boys gone to war and only a meager Navy pension and no savings, she lost the house. It didn’t seem to bother her much. She always said that without my father in it, it was “just a house.”

So the two of us took our suitcases from apartment to apartment until after two years of training, she became a nurse, a profession she was truly suited for. It held her tethered to the Earth until she retired.

From the day I first left her to live in Seattle with my older brother, she always referred to me as her “faraway boy.”

From time to time, I sent postcards and phoned her every Mother’s Day, dumping handfuls of quarters into phones from bars and cafes and bus and railroad stations in Texas, Louisiana, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo and Hollywood. After the last quarter dropped in, she always asked the same thing: “Where ya’ calling from today, kid?”

I still call her every night before going to sleep, asking for her prayers and advice and telling her where I’m calling from, sort of like postcards to the other side.

After all, it’s Mother’s Day. Who else should I be calling?

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

 

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