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Remembering the “Big O,” always and forever

big o

Anticipation was building.

In the months leading up to it, you couldn’t escape it. Every time you’d turn on the TV, invariably a promo would run.

“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults,” a live 2-hour special hosted by Geraldo Rivera, was scheduled to air on April 21, 1986.

Much of America was drawn in by the hype, including my father, Thomas Joseph O’Hara–”The Big O.” He had been born in 1921 in New York, a time when Al Capone dominated the news and ultimately became “Public Enemy No. 1.”

My father had turned 65 the year prior, and had retired from his job as corporate VP of contracts and pricing at Lockheed. He’d absolutely loved his work, and didn’t want to retire. But those were the rules.

Sometime in the early spring of that year, “The Big O” was admitted to the hospital. He had polyps on his colon; “like Reagan,” he quipped. I was 26 that year.

I remember visiting him one evening after work. It was terrifying, seeing him lying there in the hospital bed with the IVs, tubes and monitors, looking so old and frail.

One of my brothers happened to also be visiting, and they were bantering back and forth. “Dad, he said, be sure to leave me all your Lockheed stock when you die.” They both laughed.

The “Big O”glanced over at me, saw me blinking back tears, and knew what I needed to hear. “Lefty,” he said softly, I’m not gonna die.”

He was released from the hospital a few days later. I visited him that Sunday afternoon, April 20th.

I’d brought him a loaf of sourdough bread from a little shop near my duplex in Silverlake, where I was, as my dad would say, “shacking up” with my boyfriend. The “Big O” absolutely loved bread, and I delighted in bringing him freshly baked loaves when I’d visit.

He was relaxing in one of his favorite spots, a scuffed-up ’50s-era Ethan Allen chair at the big wooden table he’d had made years prior in the “eating room” (the O’Hara term for the dining room). A Raleigh cigarette was smoldering in the amber-colored ashtray. His silver Zippo lighter was nearby, along with a glistening tumbler of scotch, on the rocks. As usual, something delicious was simmering in the oven.  The”Big O” loved to cook big roasts with 50 (or so) potatoes, and have them simmer for hours in the oven. You could count on that every weekend afternoon.

His eyes lit up when I walked in, and we both beamed. He looked healthier, relaxed and happy. “It’s great to be home,” he said.  “Didya’ eat? How ‘bout some roasted chicken and potatoes?”

He served me up a plate, along with some of the bread I’d brought. He, too, had a hunk of the bread, along with several slices of cold, hard butter. It was the only way to eat bread in his book.

We chitchatted for a while, and then I needed to go. My boyfriend was playing music nearby, I needed a ride. As I was saying my goodbyes, he winced a bit. “My back,” he said. It’s been hurting since I got out of the hospital. (If it had only been his back.)

The next evening, Monday, April 21st, he, like much of America, tuned in to watch “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” on live television. After several hours, all that had been unearthed were a few dusty old bottles.

“Big O” had seen enough. “This is bullshit. I’m going to bed,” he muttered, then made his way through the eating room, down the hall, into his room–and out of this world.

Thirty  years after that massive heart attack took him from us all, he’s still in my thoughts pretty much every day–and will continue to be, until it’s my time to go, too.



“Don’t shake your head. Nod.”



It’s only been a week and a half since the sudden death of my sister, Ellen. 

Exactly two weeks ago, I was standing by her hospital bed. I had arrived the prior evening, racing across the I-90 from Seattle to Spokane after hearing the awful news. Acute renal failure. Stage 3 uterine cancer. Metastacized.

She’d been scheduled for a hysterectomy. She’d stayed home that prior week, private, proud, independent and always so strong, awaiting the arrival of our younger sister, Regan on Sunday, March 9. She was in terrible pain that continued to intensify as the week progressed, but apparently thought it was to be expected.

I’d texted her midway through the trip. “I will be arriving in a few hours. Can I visit?” No word until I neared the exit for downtown Spokane. My phone pinged. “Not tonight.”

The next morning, my younger sister and I headed to Sacred Heart Hospital. Ellen’s room was empty. We found her next-door, in the dialysis room.

I slowly approached her bed, unaware that I shaking my head at the sight of her. IV drips of various medications were circulating through her veins. She breathed through the mask of her CPAP machine.Her right hand was tightly clutching the device that administered potent pain meds on demand, every 20 minutes. . 

Her eyes revealed the unimaginble agony she’d endured. I think that was what I was shaking my head at most as I approached her. She stared intently at me, my always-in-control, take-charge sister. She was reading my face, the way she’d always done for the past 54 years. After a few moments, she spoke, softly: “Don’t shake your head. Nod.” It was quintessential Ellen humor. I obeyed her directive, per usual.

Regan then handed her the will. Ellen had asked her to bring it with us to the hospital. She held it up closely to her face and began scanning it carefully. I watched, silently.

Regan left to get an update from the doctors and nurses. Ellen stopped reading, and looked over at me anxiously. “Do you think ReRe can handle this?” (Ellen had chosen Regan way back in 2007 as the guardian for her teenaged daughter.) “Should I switch it to you?”

I assured her that she’d made the right choice; that our little sister was stronger than we knew. She had her amazing husband, and me—and our big family.

It was now her turn to nod. She returned her gaze to the will in her hands, and continued reading.





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How much can one mama love one girl?


You arrived way before I was ready—upside down, backwards and 2½ weeks early.

My pregnancy with you was easy and uneventful for the most part—except for all the craziness of the world outside. I was two weeks’ pregnant when the L.A. riots erupted and catapulted the city of angels into a city of fear and hatred.

The first time I felt you move was sometime in the late spring of 1992. A friend had given Hollywood Bowl tickets to your dad and me. It was a classical concert with an oh-so-serious audience of music aficionados. When the orchestra started playing Brahms’s Lullaby, I felt a fluttery feeling inside my belly. Then again. And again. It was you!

I grabbed his hand and placed it on my abdomen. You did another flip–and we laughed in unison. What a glorious moment that is ; the first time feel your baby move. We were elated. Unfortunately, our fellow concertgoers were not impressed. We were shushed and scolded and we fired back.  “You’re the rudest couple ever,” I hissed. Gio chimed in with his surly two cents. And then we piped down and sat there beaming, listening to Brahms’s Lullaby secure in the knowledge that you were healthy, alive, well, growing inside of me – and enjoying the concert with us. Later on, in the fall, you also came with us to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—along with Aunt ReRe, Uncle Marty and another in utero concertgoer—cousin Tony Montano. Afterwards, ReRe and I bought t-shirts for us and miniature ones for you and Tony.

After those initial flutters early on, I didn’t really feel you move much. I remember gulping down a big glass of o.j. and feeling you stir later on in the year. I worried about that, along with so many other things. I now know that you were just very mellow and gentle and content in your safe and snug little world.

I wondered if you’d be a boy or girl. I fretted about whether you’d be healthy. Most of all, I worried if I would be up to all of it; if I would regret becoming a mother. But there was no turning back.

You were due to arrive around January 6, 1993. Instead, on December 18 in the early morning hours, the day had come. Your Nana had a theory about why our water broke that day. She said you must have tried to stretch a bit in those tight quarters inside of me, and reached out a tiny finger with a growing nail, and pop! It sounded like a plausible scenario to me.

Your Dad and I had religiously attended every prenatal class, with the exception of one—the week they covered C-sections. I’d been having a great pregnancy (until I developed high blood pressure in the 37th week and was ordered to immediately cease working). I wouldn’t be having a c-section, I decidedly pompously.

Off we rushed to L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center, nervous but giddy with excitement. I had one little cramp; that was it .Your dad went off to phone key family members, while a nurse performed a routine ultrasound just to check on your progress. And then, she murmured something under her breath. What was it she was saying? “Ohhh, nooo.”  You were breach, I soon learned. Upside down and backwards. And since my water had broken , you had to come out. ASAP. An emergency c-section was ordered.

The nurse performed all the necessary preparations, and before I knew it, I was in an operating room surrounded by two doctors, an anesthesiologist and a few additional nurses. After administering the medication via IV, they were began the operation, chitchatting about mundane matters. Then it was time for your to make your debut, but it took some work. Let’s just say it’s a very strange sensation to have two pairs of hands pulling and tugging inside of your abdomen.

You absolutely did not want to come out and start your new life outside the womb. (Even before you were born, you didn’t like endings. You didn’t know then that it was an exciting new beginning.)

After several tense minutes of pulling, tugging and maneuvering, the moment arrived. Out you sprung, like a little monkey in a box, and soon let out a healthy cry.

I gazed over and saw you for the first time. Intense feelings of relief, astonishment and wonder washed over me, and I said your name for the first time: “Gabriella Mary De Francesco.”

Now here we are, 21 years later. We’ve grown and learned together, you and I. You’ve given me so much joy, and I really could not be more proud. You’ve developed into an exceptionally smart, sweet and caring woman, and have made me the luckiest mama on the planet.

I love you more than every hair on every head, every word that’s ever been said, every candle on every cake, every wish you could ever make.

Happy 21st, my marvelous “Monkey Girl”!

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In the driveway, hearing about JFK


 I was four years old and change on the day that  JFK died.

I vividly remember that moment, when we first heard that our president had been shot.

My mother was pulling into the driveway of our house in our baby-blue Rambler station wagon. We’d been out doing errands. My three siblings were all at school. (That’s why I was “riding shotgun” that day. Where did that phrase come from?)

I was chattering away happily with my three little brothers. Suddenly, we were  “shushed,” and a man’s voice on the radio repeated the horrific words. I watched my mother’s face. She looked  shocked, stunned and sadder than I’d ever seen her before. That day, I added a new word to my vocabulary – “assassination.”  

Just the other day, I was watching a news story about that horrible day. When the footage ran of Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot on live television, it transported me right back.

I remember my mother’s gasp. I remember staring, transfixed. The president had been murdered, now his murderer had been murdered. I remember a palpable feeling of fear washing over me.

(Welcome to the 1960s, little one. This is just the beginning.)







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Taking heart


This time last year, I was beginning a yearlong Certificate in Memoir program at the University of Washington.

Although I’ve made a living as a marketing copywriter for over two decades, I was new to creative nonfiction. I began the year as an insecure writer with a handful of completed personal essays, a wealth of material and a modest dream — to get one of my personal essays published.

Happily, I achieved that goal. “Taking heart,: a story I initially wrote several years ago about my daughter’s struggles and ultimate triumph over anorexia, has been included in the UW’s Professional & Continuing Education 2013 edition of Stratus: Journal of Arts & Writing!” What an incredible feeling!

Theo Pauline Nestor, thank you for the masterful teaching. To all my fellow memoir students, thank you for your invaluable feedback. Gabriella Mary De Francesco, thank you for encouraging me to enroll in the program, and most importantly — being open to having me share your story with the world.

(Mama loves her “Monkey Girl.”)

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“Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”

― Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

“Don’t surrende…

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A fond farewell to my ‘other’ dad

The funeral was last Saturday at a Catholic church in Edmonds, Washington.
It was just as Granddad had wanted–down to every last detail. What a man; what a life well-lived.

James DeFrancesco entered my life in the mid- ’80s when I began dating his son, John.
John & I lived together in a tiny studio apartment in Burbank. Granddad came to visit (Grandma had refused considering the living situation). We had no chairs–just a giant waterbed, dresser and a toaster oven. Granddad was gracious as always, and found a spot to perch on the edge of the bed. That day, I had already become a fan.My dad, Tom, O’Hara died suddenly less than a year later, and James and Tom never had a chance to meet. I think they would have gotten along well, those two WWII vets.Granddad was the antithesis of my boisterous, larger-than-life dad in every way. My dad peppered his speech with a profusion of profanities and loved nothing better than a good debate—about anything. (He was a lawyer after all.)  I adored my father, and was devastated by his death.As the years went by, I got to know a different kind of dad. Over time, Granddad helped fill the void.  He was soft-spoken, but exuded such a quiet strength. He was incredibly patient, kind and always fair. He was never mean-spirited or judgmental—ever. He always spoke the truth, and always treated me as if I were his own daughter.That patience, that kindness—that gentle spirit—I see it often in my daughter. I’ve always known it came from Granddad; never had a doubt about that.Over the years, I’d occasionally tell John how fortunate he was to have such a wonderful dad. How fortunate we all were to have had him in our lives for so long!
Read his obituary here>> 


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