Just before the pandemic shutdown, Theresa (Tess) O’Neill scrambled to the top of a rock wall at Wild Walls. Not once, but twice.
Sure lots of people have done that – but not at age 89.
On Sept. 12, the matriarch of the musical O’Neill family turned 90 and slowed down enough to chat about her active lifestyle.
“I was a competitive swimmer, a ball player, a tree-climber,” she said of her childhood.
Growing up across the street from Mission Park gave her plenty of room to roam, and every week her dad took her swimming.
But her sporting life took a backseat when she met J. Pat O’Neill at the Westward Ho restaurant in Idaho.
“I told my friend, ‘See that guy? I’m going to marry him.’ ”
And on Dec. 2, 1950, she did. The following year she gave birth to twins, Kevin and Shane. Eighteen months later, Patty arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Peggy.
“The middle child,” said Tess.
Then came BethAnn.
“She was the baby of the family for six years,” Tess said.
Another set of twins, John and Annie bookended the family.
With seven kids there was no time to pursue athletic endeavors.
Her parenting philosophy was simple: “Do what I say!”
Daughter BethAnn Long said, “She’s a force to be reckoned with. There’s a saying, ‘Don’t mess with Tess!’ ”
The challenges of raising a large brood didn’t elude Tess.
“She wasn’t exactly organized, but she always had dinner on the table at 5:30 every night,” Long said. “She’s very hospitable. Our house was filled with people. She’s very accepting and very much about unconditional love.”
Tess says she raised her brood in a different time.
“We always lived in a neighborhood – everyone was outside, including moms.”
When her sons got into a skirmish, her solution was effective.
“I made them shake hands and look each other in the eye,” she said. “All seven of those kids have always loved each other.”
It helped that they had a good example.
“Mom is our biggest cheerleader,” said daughter Peggy O’Neill. “She supported our countless sporting, musical and life events. She is always there.”
Music is a huge part of the family.
“All seven of my kids have perfect pitch,” Tess said.
However, they didn’t get that gift from her.
Daughter, Patty Pritchard, recalled the experience of attending St. Aloysius with the O’Neill clan.
“You can’t out-sing our mother,” she said, laughing. “She’d sing the Novena at the top of her lungs.”
Unfortunately, it was rarely on key.
“They get their musical ability from the O’Neill side,” Tess admitted. “But they get their acting and stage presence from me.”
She recalled her role as “Rachel, the Leper,” in a parochial school play.
Jumping up from her chair in her South Hill retirement apartment, she re-enacted the performance, limping across the living room, hand to forehead, moaning, “Oh, woe is me!”
The reason that performance stands out in her mind is because she lost her teeth partway through her monologue.
“I’d had my teeth knocked out by a baseball bat, and my partial flew across the stage and landed in the orchestra pit,” she said. “It didn’t bother me at all.”
And the reason she never misses any of her children’s or grandchildren’s (22) events is because her family asserts she has a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
“One of the reasons she’s lived 90 years is because she doesn’t want to miss out on anything,” said her youngest son John O’Neill. “She’s been like trying to herd cats when it comes to this COVID thing. The idea of isolation from family is like a total nightmare for her.”
That’s because according to Patty Pritchard, “the underpinning of my mother’s existence is connection with others. Each one of her kids and grandkids feel like we’re the center of her existence. A friend described her like this, ‘When you’re with Tess you feel seen.’ ”
John explained, “We have a rock star mom. Over the years she’s been kind of a lighthouse. I look to her as a reference point. She guides my inner man to be the best version of myself. That’s what I hope to offer my own children.”
That best version includes physical fitness.
“She got in better shape in her 70s than most people do in their entire lives,” Long said.
Indeed, Tess took up competitive tennis at 70.
“I’d never played before,” Tess said. “I thought it was a really wussy sport.”
She started golfing around the same time, and in her late 70s she wandered into a yoga class at the Spokane Club. One class was all it took. She was hooked.
Even during the COVID pandemic, she’s keeping up with her fitness routine. Hand weights perch on her window sill, a printed stack of yoga poses rest on the back of the couch.
“I’m really limber,” she said. “I went rock climbing twice, and I can’t wait to go again when COVID is done. It’s fun, and I’m pretty strong.”
She’s also quick. Daughter Annie O’Neill said, “We can never keep up with her when we’re walking. She’s always ahead of us.”
Snowshoeing is another passion. Pritchard said, “Mom says, ‘I feel like a kid when I’m doing this.’ ”
Athletic activities aren’t her only late-in-life hobby. Annie said, “My mother is also an artist. For the past 15 years she’s created beautiful stained glass and jewelry. She’s also a fashionista and always dresses with style.”
That’s not to say the past few years have been without pain. Her oldest son, Kevin, died of cancer in 2018, and now his twin brother Shane is nearing the end of his own fight with the disease.
Often in the midst of conversation, Tess paused, her eyes filling, her thoughts focused on Shane. When his symptoms arose, she nagged him to see a doctor.
“I told him I’m going to phone every 15 minutes until you make an appointment,” Tess said.
And she did.
“I don’t threat, I do,” she said.
Despite the gravity of his illness, Shane wanted his thoughts about his mom to go on record.
“She’s unselfish. A true matriarch,” he said. “Every kid, every grandchild feels special.”
And as his life draws to a close, he said, “She’s part of my inner person. She brought me into the world with love and now she’s going to see me out of the world.”
Which may explain when asked the secret to aging well, Tess summed it up succinctly.
“You have to be tough as hell,” she said.
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