There are probably very few people in the town of Paxton, according to Gareth 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.