This is a picture story about my mother-in-law Mabel Frances O’Hanlon Ford. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died in Cedar Rapids when she was 66 years old. At the time, I always thought of her as an older woman but, today I am 13 years her senior.
When it comes to mothers-in-law, I got lucky. Mabel was my friend. I want to show you some photos because I often think I’m seeing a resemblance of her in some of my grandchildren and Ford nieces and nephews and I want to see if anybody agrees.
At the time of Mabel’s birth, her father owned a cigar store. My brother-in-law Bob says Frank was a tall, well-built man who later owned a saloon on F Avenue NW in Cedar Rapids. Bob can remember sitting on the bar eating pretzels from a fish bowl – a large type of glass used to hold draft beer.
Mabel was very close to her parents, especially her mother, Rosa. It appears that Rosa was determined to keep a good photographic record of Mabel’s growth.
Her report card shows excellent grades for English, French and German, but somewhere along the line, Mabel also became an accomplished pianist and accompanist. The artist Grant Wood was a fellow student and he helped design the set for an opera the school performed at Greene’s Opera House. This may have been an opportunity for Mabel because right after high school, she began work playing as the accompanist to a local singer.
When the singer was planning to go on tour appearances, she asked Mabel to accompany her. Mabel – who was 22 years old at the time — thought about it long and hard. My father-in-law, Patrick E. Ford had asked her to marry him. She told me that in those days, it was unheard of to have a career AND a family. Fortunately for the rest of us, she finally chose marriage and family. She was 23 years old at the time of the wedding.
I met Mabel when I was in seventh grade at St. Patrick’s. A lady named Verna Cunningham was my Campfire leader. Mabel was our group’s sponsor, so we occasionally had our meetings at her house.
I remember seeing photographs of Don and Bob in their military uniforms and there was a little flag hanging in a front window. Its two blue stars signified that the family had two servicemen currently serving in World War II. My friends and I always stole a nervous glance at that flag when we entered the house. The blue stars meant that both boys were alive. If one of the stars were changed to gold, it would have meant that one of Mabel’s sons had been killed in action. When her youngest son, Gene, graduated from St. Pat’s, he too entered military service, but fortunately the war ended shortly after.
The Ford’s had a spectacular Irish Setter named Red. Everybody loved that dog. Mabel had trained him to never come into the living room and no matter how my girlfriends and I would try to lure him into the room, he wouldn’t set a paw across its threshold. And every day at 3:30 in the afternoon, he headed for the corner to wait for Gene to get home from school. We could never figure out how he could tell time.
After I got out of Campfire, I didn’t see Mabel very often. It wasn’t till Gene and I were engaged that I started getting to really know her.
Among the things I remember about her best was her really outstanding cooking – and “Little Dab Night” when she’d present a feast of leftovers, take it or leave it. Another is her absolutely astounding stamina for travel. I mean, this lady TOURED THE SIGHTS NON-STOP. Gene loved to sight-see, too, but Pat and I used to wimp out early on each venture. I don’t know where she got her energy but she loved to see everything around her. Afterwards, she used to write down endless notes to herself about what she had just seen.
Another thing I remember about her is that she used to smoke three cigarettes a week. She didn’t inhale. I suspect she did it because all the rest of us were smoking, and she wanted to look more “sophisticated”. Mabel had suffered from asthma all her life so she really couldn’t inhale nicotine anyway.
Finally, though, I’m going to tell you about how she died. Mabel used to sell magazine subscriptions back in the day when actual human beings did that work. On the day she died, October 27, 1960, she was working at her desk. She made a phone call to Bob and arranged a date to go mushroom picking. A few minutes later, Pat heard a “thump” sound. He went into the room she was in and found her. She was gone. I could never get over the quietness of her leaving. She had no time to say goodbye. It seems like she just disappeared into another world. But she will always have a lot to see and hear and write about there.