The House Colleen Built

There are probably very few people in the town of Paxton, and maybe even in all of Ford County, who are unfamiliar with the big house on the corner of Market Street and Franklin. Most everyone who goes anywhere in town ends up having a reason to drive past sooner or later, and many of the luckier ones even have reason to stop and visit a while. Whether it’s a fresh bloom of pink flamingos in the yard, or a dozen assorted vehicles lined up and down the block, the home has a way of catching your attention from the street. Those bold enough to step inside found themselves surrounded by knick-knacks from ten thousand garage sales and a cast of cats with a range of personalities well-suited for a reality show. And those who came in the house were sure to get a recap of all the latest episodes of Real Housecats of Paxton, Illinois, courtesy of Mama Ferrara.

The house was a perfect fit for Mary Colleen McCabe Ferrara. Our mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, friend, nurse, neighbor, catechism teacher, pizza chef—the woman touched countless lives and hearts throughout Central Illinois. The home she made for herself in that big house on the corner is a perfect reflection of the life she lived. There was plenty of room to bring everyone together for laughter and meals, stories and games, even though none of the seats match each other, and some of the woodwork in the dining room still hasn’t been re-installed. And that’s exactly the reason the Mama Ferrara household was a work-in-progress for decades: no matter how many good ideas and intentions she had for the household, and for herself, nothing was more important than making time to visit with family and friends, or offering a helping hand to those in need.

Of course this wasn’t always easy for those of us closest to her. Those same qualities we all loved about her so much—her warmth of spirit and boundless generosity—made it hard to count on her for some simple things, like showing up to the McCabe reunion on time, or getting in and out of the IGA in anything less than forty-five minutes no matter how small the shopping list. As kids, we couldn’t understand why she would give pizza away to an out-of-work family when we couldn’t have the latest pair of shoes we wanted, or the newest toys. How could she be so heartless?

Now, all these years later, I look around at the children my mother raised, and the rich relationships she maintained with her own brothers and sisters, and I see that she was giving us all so much more than the name-brand jeans we wanted or the video game console she refused to allow into her house. She taught us character. Through her own example, she showed us that you never back down from a chance to help someone, be that through kind words, a friendly smile, or a half-hour conversation on the church steps after Mass talking about how proud she was of her kids—while those same kids are waiting out in the car.

Sure, Mom had her faults. Trying to combine all the best traits of Bob and MaryJo McCabe couldn’t possibly be a tidy operation. The kitchen of her house may have been beautifully remodeled, but the bedrooms upstairs still have wallpaper peeling off the walls and children’s scribbles all over the woodwork. (And yes, it’s been well over a decade since her children were of “scribbling on the woodwork age.”) But this is a perfect demonstration of Mom’s values. She devoted so much of her resources to making people around her comfortable that she didn’t leave herself any time to be concerned with her own comfort and rest. I just fear this may have contributed to her passing—she didn’t know when to stop giving until it was too late.

In the few days since she passed, that big house on the corner has been flooded with family, loved ones, friends, bringing food, desserts, warm memories and laughs. She may not have been able to finish work on the house, but these few days have made it perfectly clear—she was enormously successful in building a home, for her family, for her friends, and for herself. Thank you so very much, Mom. We’re glad you’re home.

10 thoughts on “The House Colleen Built”

  1. Thanks for sharing this! During one of your mom’s visits to our restaurant, she noticed we were down to only a couple of coffee cups remaining. Being a former restaurant owner herself, she realized how quickly items disappear or get broken. Later that day she hauled in a dozen coffee cups from her home for us to use. As I picture her in my mind, she will always be smiling, wearing a hat, dancing, and giving her heart to all. I always drive by “that house”, and I will continue to smile as I drive by.

  2. Thanks Chris for showing those of whose Moms have also gone home, how to say “I love you and thank you for everything, Mom.”

  3. This is a beautiful and accurate tribute to your mother, Chris. I am not sure if you remember me but I baby sat you and your brothers and sisters for a couple of summers in the late 80’s in the very house you so eloquently describe in your blog. You were probably about 7 or 8 at the time and loved to read. Your Mom was so proud of that. She was an extraordinary woman and I am blessed to have known her and the entire family.

  4. Chris this is awesome! Your mother was like a mother to me growing up with Spencer and spending many hours at the house laughing and listening to story’s . Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Colleen and I had been friends for a long time. We always had a great time laughing at ourselves! No matter what was going on in her life, she always made time for others, with a big smile on her face. Her red glasses were her trade mark for me. We were involved in a great group of people, and watched each other’s children’s grow up. The camp outs were my favorite. I had stopped by Colleen’s house to visit her, about a month before she died. She was the same Colleen, even after everything she had been through with her health. She looked wonderful, and convinced me she was on the road to recovery. I had no clue that I would not see my friend again. I miss her too. But I have great memories to carry me through till I see her again. I love what you wrote, and I believe your Mom is very pleased. Your Mother did a great job raising you kids, and you have all turned out to be responsible adults, sometimes in spite of her short comings. God bless you all, Arlene

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