Hilda McDonnell Farrell, of Framingham, Mass., a smart, strong, funny, fascinating, proud, wonderful woman and the beloved mother of seven children, including two sets of twins born less than a year apart, died on Christmas Eve at age 96.
In addition to leaving behind Bob, Bill, Jim, twins Jack and George, and twins Amy & Dig (more on all of them in a bit) and a huge extended family, Hilda is survived by boxes of photos and newspaper clippings and postcards and recipes and writings, with the latter including a rough draft of her obituary and also a list of “final wishes” that was addressed to her children and their spouses.
The obit begins “She was born in Everett, the eldest daughter of George McDonnell and Libbie Tumey McDonnell of Toronto” and goes on to say she attended Everett schools, graduating from Everett High in 1941. It says she was a founding member of St. Jeremiah’s Church until it closed, at which point she joined St. Bridget’s Church, and from these notes you also learn that Hilda wanted to be remembered as “a lifelong scholar and writer” who earned a Bachelor of Arts at Framingham State in 1985. (We’ll do the math for you: she was 62 years old when she received her college diploma.)
As for the final wishes list, which was written a few years ago, it starts with people who Hilda asked be contacted immediately when she died, but some of them (like sister Doris, of Dedham, who is at the top of the list) are already gone.
Such is the cost for those blessed to have lived as long as Hilda did.
Hilda’s other siblings also have died: brother George McDonnell, of Milford, and sister Marie McDonnell Bluemmel, of Framingham. So, too, have many cherished friends of long years standing. Also gone is her husband, Carl, who died in 1972.
The final wishes list reveals a lot about Hilda, a wise and resolute woman whose values were forged while growing up during the Depression. “Do what you will with my material possessions,” she writes. “I would rather they be recycled than destroyed.” She also noted: “As for organ donations, if anything left over is worth reusing, please take it.”
So, yes, Hilda could be thrifty and disciplined but she found so much joy in life. She loved jigsaw puzzles and talk radio and cerebral TV shows and being outside on sunny days, with her head back and eyes closed, just smiling. (From the list: “Do NOT include ‘no flowers’ in my obituary. I love flowers and will take all I can get!”)
Of all of her loves, though, none were greater than her children: Bob, who lives in Vermont but works each summer for Holliston-based Farrell Pool Service; Bill, of Natick and St. Petersburg, Fla., the owner of the pool company; Jim, a school administrator and writer from Manchester, Conn.; Jack, a retired fireman and owner of Farrell Construction Company of Ashland; George, a salesman from Framingham; Dig (real name Richard) of Ashland, who also works for the pool company; and Amy, of Milford, N.H., a nurse.
Jack and George were born on Sept. 21, 1960 followed the next Sept. 13 by Dig and Amy. Carl and Hilda finally got their girl, and they found themselves with seven kids ages 6 and younger in their small ranch house on Whittemore Road.
Hilda didn’t coddle her children, as is evidenced by this family lore: One winter night, she got a frantic phone call from an anxious neighbor, alarmed because the little Farrell kids all had apparently snuck outside and were in their pajamas, sledding and playing in the snow. Hilda thanked the neighbor for the call and said, simply and with certainty: “I’m sure they’ll come in when they get cold.”
Make no mistake, though, she was a devoted, caring mom who always knew just what to say and do, with the right balance of empathy and authority. A skinned knee? You’d get a dab of bacitracin, a bandage, and a blunt reminder that it would happen again if you didn’t shorten those shoelaces.
Hilda had to be decisive. Carl was sick for years before he died, and the kids’ adventures and occasional -- well, frequent -- transgressions brought endless issues and challenges. Ah, but Hilda solved them all, resorting when necessary to a simple, non-negotiable statement of love that she disguised with these words: “Because I say so.”
In addition to everything else, Hilda also was an amazing, tireless homemaker. She baked loaves of bread each day that her kids scarfed down when they came home from school, and a few hours later she rang a bell from the back porch to summon them for dinner, maybe shepherd's pie or corn bread and franks or smelts.
(As a Christmas gift in 1994, Hilda gave all her children a three-ring notebook of Farrell Food recipes. It starts with an introduction that says, “It matters to me that my children, and especially the next generation of children, have a sense of the traditions of their family.... Therein is great joy.”)
As her children became adults, Hilda was able to do more for herself (taking classes, traveling a lot with Elderhostel) but always remained the matriarch and epicenter of the sprawling Farrell family. She loved the conversation and laughter that brightened Yankee swaps at Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day dinners and cookouts and such.
As the years passed and the family grew, Hilda joked she couldn’t keep track of everyone, and that's understandable: Amy Harrington and husband Mark have children Jessica, Kelly and Molly; Dig and wife Anne have children Nora, Libbie, and Carly; George and wife Lee-Anne have children Keith, Kimberly, Ashley and Sean; Jack has children Matt, Joanna, Ben, Emily and significant other Shelly; Jim has children Matt, Eric and Jenna and, with wife Vida, daughter Zenaida; Bill has children Diane Rose, Nate, Derek, Julia and, with wife Marilyn, son Andrew; and eldest son Bob has wife Vicki. Not with us yet is a 24th grandchild, due to Vida and Jim in February, and not named but no less loved are Hilda’s great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other relatives.
She spent her last years at St. Patrick’s Manor in Framingham, struggling with memory loss but at peace. Amy and her kids visited most frequently, and Jack often signed her out for afternoons of sitting and sunning in his backyard. Hilda treasured those times, as she did when she got phone calls or cards from children or grandchildren or others.
“I am not afraid to die,” she wrote in her final wishes note. “I only regret the pain you will endure when I go.”
Again, how Hilda. She knew how much she would be missed. Of course she knew. And of course she was thinking of her children, worried about their well-being. To her last day, and beyond.
Her final wishes end with a note to Bob, Bill, Jim, Jack, George, Amy & Dig:
“Know that my love for each one of you has always been the greatest joy I ever had and will endure forever. I’m proud of you beyond words, and I will keep you under my wings always. We will see each other again. Don’t forget that -- ever! How do I know? BECAUSE I AM YOUR MOTHER, AND I SAY SO!”
Family and friends will honor and remember Hilda’s life by gathering for a time of visitation in the McCarthy, McKinney & Lawler Funeral Home, 11 Lincoln St., Framingham, on Friday, Jan. 3rd from 4-8 p.m. A Funeral Mass will be held at St. Bridget’s Church, 830 Worcester Rd. (Route 9) in Framingham, on Saturday, Jan. 4th at 10 a.m. The celebrant will be (at Hilda’s request) the Rev. John Madden, pastor of St. John’s Church in Worcester and a long-time friend of the Farrell family. Interment will be private.
Donations in Hilda’s memory may be made to The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Graymoor, Garrison, New York 10524.
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