A Life Lived: Barbara Sparks

Bill Spruill looked after his mother-in-law, Barbara Sparks, who had Alzheimer's disease, on his days off from truck-driving.

Spruill family photo

The guy showing up to date Barbara and Harry Sparks’ daughter was 10 years older than their little girl, Sharon, and Harry wasn’t wild about that. The boyfriend’s long hair and earring didn’t help, either.

But from the start, Barbara was nice to Bill Spruill, even after Sharon and Bill suddenly decided to get married — when Sharon was just 18. Harry boycotted the wedding, at Longport’s Borough Hall, so Barbara left him at home.

“She said, ‘I’m going. It’s my only daughter,’” Sharon Spruill said of her mom, who died last month at 85. Plus, Barbara had nothing against Bill — she always liked him.

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Before she died, she would learn, for years, what a good judge of character she had been. Because Barbara suffered from Alzheimer’s disease so severe that, after Harry died in 2006, she had to move to Galloway Township, with Sharon and Bill.

From then on, her son-in-law was her main caregiver four days at a time — on days off from his regular truck-driving runs to Florida.

“I basically gave up my free time to watch my mother-in-law,” said Bill, 63. “It was like having a kid — you couldn’t just run to the hardware store unless you took Mom with you.”

But that’s not a complaint. Bill said he always liked Barbara.

Sharon even jokes that in her family, she and her husband did a role reversal.

“He was the son. I became the daughter-in-law,” she said.

Harry eventually came around on Bill, too — especially after Bill and Sharon had two kids: Michael, 33, and Sarah, 30. Bill was happy things got better with his father-in-law, but he says it always worked both ways with Barbara.

“She got along with everybody,” he said. “And we had a lot of fun. I was always joking with her. … Her doctor used to say, ‘Your humor and laughter are keeping her going.’”

Sure, he took her to the doctor. But in general, the two enjoyed each other so much, Barbara’s obituary said seeing them together “was like watching a comedy team in action.”

Bill and Sharon both know they were lucky in that relationship — especially in a world full of mother-in-law jokes, not all of them said for laughs.

Sometimes Sharon would tell friends how close her mom and husband were, knowing the reaction up front:

“Yeah, right,” she said, from years of experience. “But they got to see it. … Because for the last six years, we couldn’t go anywhere — we had to have people here, so they saw the comedy team in action. And when he was away, all she ever asked was, ‘When’s Bill coming home?’ She just loved him to death. … I made her eat her vegetables. He gave her chocolate pudding.”

A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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