When I was a little girl I lived next door to our family business, McDermott Colonial Mortuary in Santa Barbara. My father, Thomas Joseph McDermott was a mortician as was his father, Charles Stephen McDemott. Charles moved from Morris, IL with his wife, Hanora in 1906, to open McDermott Undertaking Co. on the corner of State & Haley Streets. Charles married “Nora” one of three O’Leary sisters of Chicago, all who married morticians.
Hanora’s sister Cecilia, known as “Cela”, married John Reilly in Chicago and they opened the Reilly Funeral Home in 1901 in Tuscon which closed in1990.
Mary, or “Mamie” as she was called, married Oliver Reardon and with him in 1911 opened the Reardon Funeral Home in Ventura although it had previously been an undertakers as early as 1890.
I never met my grandparents, Charles and Nora McDermott. They passed away within hours of each other when the Spanish influenza cast its pall over Santa Barbara in the early 20’s. Charles died on New Year’s Eve of 1921 and Nora a few hours later on New Year’s Day of 1922. Some family accounts say, that she felt his passing and simply gave up. Charles (43) and Nora (39) left 4 young children, my Aunts Loretta (8), Frances (7), my daddy Thomas (6) and Uncle Maurice (8 months). The Reardon’s in Ventura, who already had 7 of their own, took them all in and the family swelled to overfull with 11 children, living upstairs in the Reardon Funeral Home in Ventura, 30 miles south of Santa Barbara.
Maybe this particular business runs in the blood, as Daddy, Aunt Frances and Uncle Maurice hoped to return to Santa Barbara as adults and reopen the family business, which they eventually did, but, the desire to follow in their footsteps passed by both me and my older brother, Charles Michael, completely. Perhaps this was because it really wasn’t in our blood. Both Charles and I are adopted and from different families.
Other than the ongoing discussion between Mommy and Daddy every night at 6pm supper about “how many cases we got” and “how many” the other mortuaries in town “got”, Daddy didn’t bring talk of his work home. I really didn’t know anything about what he did, only that “the office” was next door and that sometimes Mommy would go to play the organ in the loft of the new chapel. But after walking with her one day into the backdoor of the office, I caught a glimpse of a large white basin with a white sheet covering a bumpy shape and smelled a pungent and somewhat sweet smell which I later learned was formaldehyde.
I felt afraid immediately and gripped her hand tighter with my own sweaty little palm. I recall her saying something like “I asked for that door to be closed”. She must have called ahead to let them know we were coming but it didn’t get attended to. There were no windows or air system for ventilation in that workroom, and later it was not unusual for me to see the huge oversized white door, almost square, slightly ajar. But, this was the first time and I didn’t know what it was and seeing a prone ghost floating was spooky and having that smell hit all of my senses when we walked though the back door of “the office” was like nothing I had ever experienced. Living next door to the “heebie-jeebie people”, which is what I called those who had passed on, was close enough for me. Walking by bodies who’s souls were not quite here or there, and lord only knows in which direction they were headed, was not anything like what my other friends did after school.
On the 2nd floor of the building was a one-bedroom apartment for the caretakers, Sadie and Frank Flynn. They were a middle-aged couple from Ireland. Frank mowed the mortuary lawn, raised the American flag up the pole in front each morning and carefully lowered and folded it into a triangle every night, polished the mortuary’s two 1954 Cadillac green limos and matching hearse, and donning a grey cap and jacket, became Mr Flynn, the chauffeur for grieving families, driving them from their homes to services at the mortuary chapel, local church or graveside. When I was older, Frank occasionally drove me to Peabody Elementary School in one of the limos requiring that I sit in the back seat much to my mortification. It was enough to be a pudgy kid, go to a school that was “out of district”, and have to play my accordion on ‘show and tell’ days but arriving in a limo set me apart from everyone else as a “rich kid”; something we were not.
Sadie was one of my early mom’s of choice. Over the years I have had many mothers. Perhaps that is because I have been searching for her, my real mother, all my life. So, it was to Sadie’s apartment, that my mom, Louise Jackson McDermott, was taking me that first afternoon when I came up the back door steps of the mortuary, and caught my first breath of the formaldehyde fumes and saw that white-sheeted shape. Mommy and I had come to have tea and for Sadie to meet me.
When we got to Sadie’s apartment, she greeted us with a cheery hello. Her voice was like the quiet call of a mourning dove and her eyes were a soft light blue-gray with a sadness about them when she smiled at me. She took her hand and placed it on my head giving it a soft pat like a blessing. I was thus welcomed into what would become one of my favorite places in the whole world. I asked to go there as often as I could. It was a safer place than being alone after school with my brother who once sprayed insecticide in my face and on another occasion tried to get me to crawl into the grave he had dug and camouflaged with a sheet of plywood covered with loose dirt and rocks in the backyard. Even though she worked at home, Mommy was busy and couldn’t stop to see what terrors my older brother had in store for me.
When I reached the age of six, I got to go to Sadie’s by myself in the afternoons. I walked out our front door and turned left to the get to the little parking lot and garage next door. The big limos were housed there. Every time I went inside the mortuary I was terrified. I took a deep breath and ran as fast as I could in my white Stride Rite oxfords passing the embalming room, with it’s sometimes partially opened door, around the corner and onto the thin gray carpet outside the casket “showroom” and “the old chapel” with it’s stained glass window of the Good Shepherd holding a lamb flanked by deep burgundy velvet drapes that could be pulled to cover it if the religious persuasion of families required this, picking up speed as I rounded another dark corner where the door to “the arrangement room” was, and finally one more corner, making a complete circle to the wide carpeted stairs on the left that led to Sadie’s. Nearly out of breath I ran up these as fast as I could and would lightly knock on the glass paneled door at the top. Sadie would welcome me with a warm hug. Only then did I let the air out and take a breath in.
She and Frank had lost twin girls in Ireland soon after their birth and I don’t think they ever got over it. She called them her angels.
“There’s my girl”, she said.
I was a rather shy and quiet girl at home, but during the hours I was with Sadie there seemed to be an endless flow of things to talk about; school, plants, (she was an early practitioner of container rooftop gardening), my hamster and accordion lessons. She let me sit in Frank’s big overstuffed chair with its wide arms and nubby beige upholstery while we chatted. Sometimes we would go into her neat as a pin bedroom and I would sit on one of the two twin beds covered with chenille bedspreads while she ironed, chatting all the time.
Sadie taught me three things.
How to drink tea, the Irish way, strong and black with milk and sugar in a flowered tea cup and saucer that I still have and treasure.
How to knit the Irish way (also known as the English way) throwing my yarn around the back of the right needle as opposed to the Continental way bringing it in front of the left needle which I later taught myself to do. She cast on endless stitches for me with sky blue yarn and when my rows were looking a little wobbly from picking up stitches I should have left alone, she would put on her grey framed bifocals and study my work until she found my mistakes. Sometimes she took the yarn off and we started again, and other times she had me go on, figuring that it would all turn out ok in the end somehow and it was the process and fun of it all that was important, and not the perfection.
And, how to bake cookies her way.
The mortuary caretakers’ apartment kitchen was no wider than the 4-burner white stove at the far end and Sadie always made good use of it. She pulled in a wooden chair from the big heavy solid wood table that filled her dinning room so I would be tall enough to work with her at her kitchen counter.
Sadie got out her big ceramic bowl, hand mixer, spoon and fork and we began. Each time we made the cookies, the ingredients were slightly different and there was no exact measuring either. We measured using one of Frank’s coffee cups from the cupboard above and silver teaspoon from the drawer below the counter. We creamed sugar into butter or shortening using a hand-cranked beater until everything was light and fluffy and had turned a pale yellow. We passed the bowl back and forth taking turns mixing. Her arms and hands were stronger than mine and she willingly took over for me when I tired. Next we cracked one or two eggs into a smaller bowl and beat them with a fork until they were a bit frothy. Then we added them to the creamed sugar and mixed again with the fork until they were well blended.
The dry stuff came next. We filled the coffee cup full, twice, from a 5-pound bag of white flour. Next came a big pinch of salt poured from the round blue box with the picture of the little girl with the umbrella. I always wondered about her. Sadie said she was pretty like me. She poured a small amount in my hand, about 1/4 teaspoon and then using the silver spoon we added 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda from the yellow box on her shelf. Both went into the bowl. Then we sifted with an old gray sifter, turning the crank with its wooden knob until all the flour was on a plate looking like a pointed mound of powdered sugar. All the dry sifted flour mix was added to the wet ingredients in the big bowl and then mixed with her wooden spoon round and round until it looked blended and smooth. I got to take one taste with my finger and I made sure it was a big one. Walnut pieces, if they were available, were added and when the dough was all mixed, we finished by carefully folding in a cup of rice crispies or corn flakes to give them extra crunch. The crunch was my favorite part!
On a well-greased baking sheet we put dough plops using the silver teaspoon once again. Then the filled sheet went into a pre-heated oven to bake. Our noses and eyes told us when they were ready. When Sadie’s (and probably the entire mortuary building) smelled warm and yummy and the cookies were a beautiful golden color and ever so slightly darker around the edges she took them out of the oven and set them to cool for several minutes before we took them off of the cookie sheet with her spatula and placed them on a rack to cool.
I wonder if the grief she felt for the loss of her own children was eased by the time we spent together and if what she taught me was what she had hoped to pass on to her angels. I know this feeling of dreams being ripped away as my own daughter, Sara, was born in 1980, severely handicapped and mentally retarded. Like Sadie, I have never heard my daughter say to me, ‘I love you, Mommy” and laugh as we danced around in the kitchen to the rhythm of pots and pans.
After the cookies cooled and I had one or two, I washed them down with a cup of tea. Sadie cast the yarn on my needles and I happily knit and purled for the rest of the afternoon until Frank came. She put her strong arms around me and pulled me into her warm chest to give her “little girl” another hug and feeling a bit safer and stronger, I walked down the stairs, not holding my breath this time, rounding all the corner, down the wooden back stairs, crossing the six-car parking lot to home.
Sadie and Frank moved from the mortuary to a mobile home in the 1970’s and I went to see them whenever I came home from college and before I moved back to Santa Barbara to care for my mom when she became ill with cancer in 1977. Frank who was a lifelong smoker was on oxygen by that time and could not manage the stairs at the mortuary or to the apartment anymore. He passed away a few months before the birth of my daughter, Sara, in 1980 and Sadie followed a few years after that. And when I make her cookies, I’m still her little girl.
1 cup of butter or shortening, a mix of half and half is just fine
1 cup of sugar
2 well beaten eggs
2-1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
1/2-1 cup walnut pieces
1 cup rice crispy or corn flake cereal
Cream shortening/butter and sugar and then add eggs and beat with a mixer. Sift the dry ingredients (if you like) and add. Add the nuts. Add the cereal. Drop from a teaspoon onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake 350F for 12-15 minutes.
(Recipe is based on Pecan Crispies from the Better Homes & Garden Cook Book, 1947 edition.)