Lucille M. O'Brien

August 31, 2013|By JANET HEIM |
  • Lucille O'Brien was 94 in this photo taken at the wedding of one of her granddaughters in the summer of 2012.

Lucille O’Brien’s life was all about family and caring for others.

The second oldest of 12 children born and raised on a farm in Shepherdstown, W.Va., Lucille had a work ethic to match her strong will.

“She was determined. She had a feistiness in her. Some relatives called it the Miller spirit,” said daughter Jan Young of Williamsport. “But she had a lot of faith and a strong belief in her God.”

Lucille also was proud that she skipped a grade in school.

Her children have good memories of the annual family reunion with a very large extended family.

Lucille’s determination came through when she insisted on going to nursing school, despite her father’s objections. With a large family, help was needed on the farm to care for the younger children, Jan said.

Lucille didn’t back down, and her father drove her to Hagerstown to attend Washington County Training School for Nurses. She graduated in November 1938 in a class of 13.

It was at Beck’s Tavern in downtown Hagerstown that Lucille met Harry O’Brien. She was dancing with a friend of his when Harry, who was a foot taller than Lucille, cut in.

He told her he would be the last man she would dance with. Three months later, in March 1940, they got married in Winchester, Va.

“They just had no doubt,” Jan said.

It would be nine years until Jan was born, followed by sons Doug and Pat. The three children were born within five years.

“Her whole life revolved around her children,” said Jan, a retired schoolteacher.

The O’Briens suffered when Doug died in 1996 at age 45, a difficult loss for the whole family. It was their faith, family and friends that got them through it, Jan said.

Harry worked at Pangborn, then Fairchild during the war, unhappy to be deferred due to severe stomach ulcers. He then worked at and retired from Mack Trucks.

Meanwhile, Lucille’s more than 50-year nursing career took her to many different health facilities in the county. The one that really touched the O’Brien children was Kemp Horn Home, where Lucille, who was called “Missy O” by the residents, served as director.

The home cared for mentally challenged patients, and Lucille’s leadership helped transform it from an institutional setting to a loving home, Jan said.

“We just got close to all the children there,” Jan said.

“She left a legacy of helping the less fortunate,” said Pat, who lives in Hagerstown and owns Ben’s Flower Shop.

The O’Briens raised their children in a Christian home, saying prayers before meals and hearing the children’s bedtime prayers. Saturday nights meant washing hair and polishing shoes in preparation for church the next day.

Most recently, Lucille and Harry attended Maranatha Brethren Church, where they worked together with the bus ministry. Lucille also helped organize altar flowers and attended Sunday school.

“It wasn’t just on Sunday,” Pat said of his parents putting their faith into action.

Jan was 6 years old when the O’Briens moved from Radcliffe Avenue to View Street, which would be the family home for about 60 years. Although the two-story home wasn’t large, there always was room for more family members.

“That house to all of us was like a palace,” Jan said.

As highchairs and booster seats were added around the table, the family squeezed in, with Lucille taking a small corner. She and Harry took great pride in their children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

“Family meals were it. That’s how we get together — Sundays, holidays, birthdays — any reason to get together,” said youngest grandchild Ben O’Brien of Peoria, Ill.

“For Thanksgiving, there’d be 15 things and she made ’em all. It was all awesome,” Pat said.

“Everything was homemade. The dining room was my favorite room in the house,” Jan said.

Everybody had their favorite dishes, which Lucille would make for their birthday dinners. The home never had an automatic dishwasher, and there was no need for one because Harry did all of the dishes.

Lucille brought a sense of fun to her home, which was a gathering place for many of the children’s friends. With the kitchen often filled with the tantalizing smells of her cooking, the children would ask what their mother was cooking, to which she would reply they were having pickled pigs’ feet on toast, just to get a laugh out of them.

On Christmas mornings, the three children would gather in the boys’ bedroom to watch for their mother’s return home from working the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at Washington County Hospital. They were not allowed to come downstairs until Lucille got home from work.

During their 66 years of marriage, Harry always opened the car door for his wife, and she always left home in a car that he had ready and waiting for her, with either the heat or air conditioning running if needed.

In return, Lucille baked Harry a pie ever week.

“They were both a role model for so many people,” Ben said.

The couple enjoyed dancing, and one of the few things they did for themselves was join the Elks Club so they could dance, Pat said.

Their favorite song to dance to was “Mack the Knife,” which Lucille told Pat was the first song to which she and Harry danced. After Lucille’s graveside service at the cemetery, Pat shared the story of the song, and the family honored the memory of Lucille and Harry by dancing to that song.

The family had different terms of affections for Lucille. Pat and his sons called her “Ma,” then later “Small Maw” by the boys, as age reduced her height to about 5 feet. Jan called her “Mother,” and her children called their grandmother “Grammy” or “Grams.”

Jan and Pat said they never heard their parents call each other by their first names, that it was always “Mother” and “Daddy.”

“We never heard a harsh word,” Pat said.

“Mother was the family matriarch,” Jan said. “Daddy had a sweet way of managing that.”

On Saturday morning, they would head to the City Farmers Market, where they knew the vendors by name. Jan said Harry would hum a tune as Lucille put the vegetables in the basket he carried for her.

“Their life was literally their home, the market, church and the baseball field,” Ben said. “Life was simple. Family was important.”

It has been more than seven years since Harry died, his passing leaving a huge hole for Lucille. Her health was good, though, until about 18 months ago.

Lucille’s hearing and vision were diminishing, and a bout of pneumonia landed her in the hospital, then in a nursing home for rehabilitation. She fought to get back home, which she did, but didn’t like being on the receiving end of caregivers, preferring the role of caregiver.

Lucille took her “last ladylike breath” on a Sunday afternoon, with rain falling gently outside.

“The Good Lord just called her home,” said Jan, adding she can imagine the reunion in heaven with Harry and Doug.

“Mother, when you got to heaven, I hope you tapped Daddy on the shoulder and asked him to dance,” Jan said at the funeral. “I can hear him say, ‘Mother, what took you so long?’”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Lucille M. O’Brien, who died Aug. 18 at the age of 95. Her obituary was published in the Aug. 21 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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