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Elizabeth “Betty” (Prince) O’Brien

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  A regular contributor to this column, Dave O’Brien’s mom, Betty, passed away on December 26, 2022, after a life – by any measure – well lived.

  Dave was a Malden original. A Malden High Athletic Hall of Famer graduating in 1977, O’B used his brain as well as brawn to become a leader amongst his peers. As a senior Dave captained the football and wrestling teams, earning that coveted spot in the Hall. Dave graduated from UMass Amherst in 1981, is a published author (“Heroes of the Seventh Crisis”), has always been a free thinker, and above all else, a compassionate global citizen. Dave has accomplished much in his short existence here on earth but his contributions to my column over the years, priceless to me.

  I did not know Betty. I wish I had. Dave was kind enough to share some thoughts on his beloved mom:

  “In the summer of 1970, on a bus from Medford Square, I heard my mother, Elizabeth (Prince) O’Brien, laugh. I remember it because it was the first time in a long time that I’d heard her laugh.

  “For that, I need to back up.

  “My brother Danny didn’t have an easy life. Short, but not easy.

  “Artistic. Not athletic. Probably gay. An earring. Polka dot shirts. Round, tinted glasses like John Lennon. Teased. Ridiculed.

  “But he somehow found like-minded friends from places like Harvard Square. I recall a Black girl with an afro crashing in our attic for a couple of days. On her journey.

  “Danny first ran away when he was maybe thirteen. Definitely by fourteen. My parents, overwhelmed with worry, called the police. Danny landed in juvenile detention in Roslindale. There, they gave him a buzzcut and treated him cruelly. I guess to teach him…something.

  “It taught my parents a lesson: Do not call the police when Danny runs away. Which he did. I believe for a time he found his way into some kind of group shelter for youth at risk.

  “My parents were splitting up, but they took turns visiting Danny and taking him and his fellow street urchins out for something to eat. Just surviving. I remember my mother telling me that Danny was losing his hearing from all the rock concerts.

  “So now, summer of ’70. I suffer from chronic swimmer’s ear. I’m a water rat with long hair. Water gets in. Gets trapped. Infection. Pain. My mother sits with me and holds me when the pain keeps me up at night. She says, David, please let us cut your hair. I say, no, no, no. And I punch the pillow.

  “And I’m a movie fiend. Escapism, baby. I see every movie that comes to town. And I’m already finding my way to the Boston theaters.

  “It’s a hot summer day. I’m looking forward to the evening and meeting my dad at the Granada. He’s living at the Y.M.C.A. Like always, it’s a double feature. The Five Man Army and Captain Nemo and The Underwater City.

  “I’m about to head out. The phone rings. My mother answers. Listens. Hangs up. She says to me, tell your father Danny was hit by a car.

  “I run to the Granada. I’m thinking: Danny ruined my movie night. Death doesn’t occur to me. I’m picturing Danny with a cast on his leg. Upon hearing my news, my father turns and runs to find a phone.

  “Danny is a week in a coma. And then he dies. Sad times. Tough times.

  “But life itself goes on. And so does my earache. My mother brings me to a specialist in Medford Square. He puts a wick in my ear and tells me to stay out of the water for the rest of the summer (yeah, right) and then get a bathing cap (yeah, right).

  “We are on our way to the bus stop when we spot a hippie with a backpack. Clearly lost. He’s asking for directions but he’s being ignored. My mother leads me to him. He’s trying to find Harvard Square. She draws him a map. She gives him a five-dollar bill. And she tells him about Danny. They hug for what seems a very long time. The hippie and my mom. In the middle of the square in the middle of the day.

  “He says to me: Take care or your mother, little man. And off he goes. On his journey.

  “We’re standing there on the sidewalk, watching him walk away. We notice a woman my mother’s age, even dressed like her, walk by the hippie and give him a look of disgust. Then, seeing my mother, and, I guess wanting to make some kind of connection, she rolls her eyes and shakes her head. My mother says to her, ‘he’s beautiful.’

  “I turn to look at the woman. She’s staggering. She has one hand on a storefront glass. As if to keep her balance. You’d think my mother had hit her with a left uppercut.

  “When we’re on the bus, I say, when he gets to Harvard Square, he can tell the other hippies that he met Danny O’Brien’s mother.

  “And she says, if he ever finds it.

  “And we both laugh. A good laugh. And I learn then that grief comes and goes. Interspersed with laughter.

  “My mom died at 12:20 a.m. December 26, 2022.

  “Over the next four days, I weep several times. Memories. Photos. Wanting to talk to her one more time. I’m left drained, exhausted, and stressed. And I just want to get through the formalities. Get it all over with. And go home. But when I walk into Spadafora’s, the first person I see is John LoPresti.

  “He puts out his hand to shake and I try to arm drag him. And we laugh.

  “Then Dominic Sardo walks in. Still looking like he could bench press a house. More laughs.

  “Then Peter Menzies appears. He’d grown up on Auburn Street. There is a brief sad moment because my first instinct is to go get my mother and say, guess who’s here! She had adored Peter. And his brother Dennis. When she was really fed up with her own sons, she’d say, I’d trade the four of you right now for Dennis and P.J. Peter and I have a laugh over that.

  “Eddie Willcox shows up! He and Dominic come so close to wrestling. Right there in front of the sandwich table. I’m egging then on for some unfathomable reason. I have my hands on their backs, pushing then toward each other, saying, do it. Okay, so now I’m having almost too much fun.

  “And in between and mixed in with these moments of almost sheer giddiness is the return to grief. Elizabeth had ten siblings. There are cousins and aunts and people from my mother’s life. Remembering her. Missing her already. We are together in a collective sadness. It’s been a rough year to be a Prince. Uncle Dave. Uncle Bob. And now, my mom. Three down in one year.

  “Ellen had said: There will be a surprise. Someone unexpected will show.

  “Want to guess? Ready? John Cagno is there! With that perpetual smile that goes all the way up to his eyes. My burden is being lifted. The load is lightening.

  “And then, just as the poem reading is about to begin, John Mehos materializes. We are so happy to see each other to sit quietly. So, we go into the lobby. He always made me laugh. Ever since our 0-8 Pop Warner season. Which, by the way, was in the Autumn of 1970.

  “We’re standing there laughing, and that’s when Louis Femino enters from stage left. And if it had been a play, it would have seemed contrived. The moment is that close to perfect.

  “I had expected it to drag. But It’s over so fast. I’m on my way to the exit when someone from the funeral home tells me that Jimmy Muise called to say he’s thinking of me. I step onto the sidewalk with my ex-wife (but not my ex-friend). It’s a warm, beautiful Spring Day in late December.

  “I feel uplifted. Like Scrooge after his redemption. I’m tempted to run down Main Street, singing, ♫…I like life. Life likes me…♫

  “Obviously, there will be more memories and more tears. But not just tears.

  “Cry until you laugh until you cry until you laugh.

  “And I guess that’s called…living. So off we go. On our journeys.”

  As Peter Falk’s iconic TV character “Columbo” would say, “Just one more thing, sir” – a son’s love for his mother – Dave in 2019: “I am mostly concerned about my mom, Betty. She is ninety. She lives in a senior housing complex in Melrose. A resident in the complex was recently hospitalized with Covid-19. Men in hazmat suits sprayed the hallway just outside Betty’s door. We spoke on the phone this morning. As we have been doing every morning, since…all this. We talk about the world and humans and family and the future and death and dying and letting go and saying goodbye and the meaning of life (if there is one) and wills and journeys and concern for the younger generations. Heavy stuff.

  “But we talk about these things, my mom and I do, without the melodrama. Without even much emotion. There’s no weeping. We analyze. It’s just how Betty and I roll. We’re on the same wavelength. Peas in a pod as it were.”

  Postscript: “As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us; as we remember them.” Jewish Prayer.

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