Blog Update: Saying Goodbye to Mom

If you don’t follow me on social media, then you may have missed my post last week. Ten days after suffering a massive stroke, my mother died on June 15th. She was 85.

Last August, Mom had gotten sick with a gall bladder attack, and the doctors discovered atrial fibrillation of her heart, too. So she was put on blood thinners and had a gall bladder drainage bag that needed to be switched out every few months. In October of last year, doctors attempted to remove her gall bladder and her blood pressure dropped so low, she almost coded, so the surgery was aborted. It took her until January of this year to recover to the point where she felt comfortable walking through the grocery store (but leaning on the cart for support). She was clearly on a decline.

In recent months, Mom had mentioned how much getting old sucked, from the loss of dexterity in her fingers, to her decreasing eyesight. She agreed it was probably time to stop driving. She hadn’t had a proper will done since about the time I was born,
(That was an unsigned copy, who knows where the signed one ended up) so I hooked her up with our family lawyer to get all her legal documents in order. But she had her stroke mere hours before she was to sign those documents.

Losing a parent is tough at any age. My dad died when I was 14, at the age of 51, of a massive heart attack while sleeping. I had a hard time getting over it, and in fact in some ways I never have. Watching my mom slowly fade away over the course of 10 days’ time was gut-wrenching. Watching her try to respond to the nurses or us kids, then the slow descent to unresponsiveness was hard to watch. This was not how my mother wanted to die.

By the time you read this, I’ll have delivered the eulogy for Mom at a memorial mass. It’s hard to encapsulate a long life into a seven-minute speech, and I’d like to include it here for posterity:

Good morning, my name is Jennifer, Shirley’s youngest child, and truth be told, her favorite.  But you could also say the same about my sisters Jeanine and Renee’ and my brothers John, Guy, Dan and Paul.  Whatever child Mom was with at the time was her favorite. Whomever she just got off the phone with, or came to visit her, was her favorite at the time.  Mom made us feel like we were the favorite child, when in reality she had no favorites.

One of my favorite photos of myself is my kindergarten picture. Why? Because I was wearing a brand-new Shirley Jacobson original calico swing dress. Unless you were the oldest boy or girl, you always got hand-me-down clothes, but for my first day of school my mother made me a brand-new dress.  She was an expert sewer such that she turned her sewing into extra money. She was a member of a crafting club that sold their creations once a year.  I remember one time helping her late at night.  She was very appreciative and said so, which was rare. Mom didn’t verbalize her affection, she showed you her love by doing stuff for you, with the occasional hug thrown in, too.

Mother kept an immaculate house despite the seven little heathens she was raising making messes all the time. I’d often come home from school and find her on the phone with someone and the Rainbow vacuum cleaner would be running, with the brush head facing up and in the middle of the living room floor. When asked why she left the vacuum running, Mom told me it was to suck the dust particles out of the air. But seriously, the house was always kept in tip top shape.

I’m not even going to mention her green thumb and how she could coax anything to grow. Who else do you know that could grow a tropical bird of paradise and get it to flower in her living room in Green Bay, Wisconsin? In Winter. ‘Nuff said.

Mom was also of the school of Suck it Up, Buttercup. As kids, we NEVER went to the doctor unless it was a yearly checkup. It seemed no matter what happened to us, Mom could fix us up. It became a running joke amongst the kids. “You’re not bleeding, you don’t need to go to the doctor.”  And to be fair, sometimes when we were bleeding, we STILL didn’t get to go to the doctor. We had Dr. Mom.

When I was 14 and the other kids were all grown up, our father died.  And it was just me and Mom, trying to figure out how to be a single mother who could provide for her child, and I tried my best not to worry my mother and be a good kid. Before the funeral, my mom took me aside and told me to stop crying. It was being selfish to want Dad back, when he was in a better place now. As a young teenager, I didn’t understand my mother’s stoicism, but now I get it. Ask my family and they’ll tell you I don’t cry, or do it easily, at least. I guess I’m like Mom that way. I’m a tough Belgian like she was.

When I was in 2nd grade, my Mom returned to the workforce after 20 years as a stay-at-home mom. She got a job at Dolly Madison Bakery. She brought home “hog feed”, products which may have passed their sell by date and were going to be shipped to some hog farm down south. Zingers, raspberry zingers with coconut frosting. And I think I can speak for all my brothers and sisters when I say that if I never eat another zinger in my life, it would be too soon. Mom worked at Dolly Madison for most of the next 25 years, feeding her grandkids the same treats she brought home for us. And next door to Dolly Madison was Bethesda Thrift Store, whose aisles she would peruse before or after work. And the treasures she would find!  “Look at this widget I found.  And it only cost me 50 cents!”  I think all of us kids have some Bethesda treasures in our house, given to us by our thrifty mom.

Jeanine and I were very lucky to have Shirley Jacobson as our mother when we had children of our own.  She selflessly came to our homes for several weeks after the birth of each child, just as her mother had done, taking care of the household and older kids so we could rest and bond with our new baby. And oh, did Mom love babies!  You’d have to in order to have her  first six in seven calendar years? 

As good as a mother as she was to us, she was a doting grandmother, too. I remember my mother telling me that she wasn’t going to be the sort of grandparent who watched their grandchildren all the time because 1) she already raised seven kids and 2) she never wanted to feel like her grandchildren were a chore. Grandma Shirley had the magic touch with her grandkids. It goes without saying that Veronica took her first steps for her grandmother, not me.  Despite her declaration, she was always willing to watch my kids for short periods of time so I could do something exciting like get a haircut. One time I took Lorelei somewhere and left Sabrina, then about 2, with Grandma Shirley. When I came to collect her, I asked Mom if she’d fed Sabrina any junk food and she said, “No, of course not.” Sabrina started waving and said, “Bye Bye Grandma, Bye Bye Chocolate.” That was Grandma Shirley.

Mom loved to cook. After years of preparing meals for a family of nine, I think she missed it when my brothers and sisters moved out of the house. She loved hosting the holiday celebrations, and even though us kids would each contribute to the meal, somehow she’d have a turkey, four side dishes, and at least three pies whipped up for each occasion.

Mom had two great loves in her life: our dad, whom she met while she was working as a school secretary and my dad was hired as a long-term substitute teacher. Our dad had overheard her talking to someone else about how she had made pizza the night before. So he invited himself over for dinner. And the rest, they say, is history. They had 28 years together.

Then there was Ken Del Marcelle, who met Mom at Dolly Madison and spent the next 30 years together. Ken, we know you are grieving as we are, and just want to say we appreciate how well you took care of mom over the years. You really knew how to make her laugh. You are our kids Puppa Ken, you are family, and always will be.

Mom NEVER gave advice until her later years, always replying “Whatever you think is best.”  Which could be maddening at times, but she was teaching her kids independence. As she got older, it became easier for her to give advice. While we growing up, we knew we were loved, she rarely said it.  Maybe it was the grandkids, or just age, but our mother became very good at saying “I Love You” as the years wore on.  Thank you, Mom, for learning to say I love you so freely, for loving us unconditionally, and being the best mom, grandma, sister, aunt, and friend you could ask for.


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