On the generational front line

On the generational front line

No matter how old we are, no matter how much we expected it, we’re never quite prepared to lose our parents.

My friends and I are at the age where it’s a common occurrence. Suddenly we’re the ones on the generational front line, without the emotional backup we’ve had since we were kids.

My Mom passed away on Aug. 17 after a long illness. The world has gone on, even as it’s profoundly changed.

She wasn’t herself the last couple of years, but now I find myself missing her the Blog Photoway she used to be. Small things, like when I’m trying to figure out how to organize something in my house, or attending one of my kids’ events that she would have loved. Big things, like struggling with a parenting issue. I miss her gentle counsel.

I also find myself wishing I’d done more with her, called her more, gotten to know her friends better the way my siblings did, who lived nearby. At the luncheon after her funeral, one of her friends — who sang a gorgeous version of the “Ave Maria” that day, a cappella — touched my heart when she asked to meet my son, who was born a few months after my dad passed away in 1999. “I heard so much about him from your Mom,” she said.

Friends have been so kind to us in recent weeks, sharing stories about Mom. The most recent came from a family friend who painted her garage door a few years back. He had one eye patched from an accident, and Mom kept coming out to bring him something to drink and ask if he was OK. That kind of sums her up.

These are precious new memories.

A friend who went through this transition several years ago reminded me that our parents are still there, in unexpected ways.

Her mom loved butterflies, and they always seem to pop up whenever my friend is missing her most. A month ago, the family gathered for her daughter’s 16th birthday party, and a butterfly floated across the deck. Within a few hours of telling me this story, my friend got a text from her husband with a photo of a blue butterfly he’d spotted on the sidewalk.

I have found comfort in my siblings, and in holding onto things that were special to Mom — a ring her mother gave her, a plaque about being Irish, old photos, the notes she wrote.

When we got back in town after the funeral, my daughter decided to pull out some home videos. There was Mom, sitting on the bed while my daughter read her a book. I had forgotten it existed. “Are you OK?” my daughter asked as we watched.

Actually, I was. It was like therapy.

* * *

With your indulgence, I thought I’d share excerpts from the talk we gave about our Mom, Mary Dolores Fitzpatrick Wurth:

Mom didn’t have a long biography in the traditional sense. But she had a huge impact on the people around her.

Mom was kind. She was smart. She was beautiful and loving. And she had this cute giggle, especially when she was laughing at herself or at some funny remark from her son, or her brothers, or her dear friend Dru.

But the word that keeps coming to mind is “grace.” Not in the fashion or spiritual sense necessarily, but in the way she handled everything.

She was unassuming and generous to a fault, always putting her family first and making others feel welcome in her home.

As a parent, she did all the little things moms do: typing those last-minute high school papers, chauffeuring us to endless ballet lessons and baseball games, or just providing a welcoming smile — the same one that captivated our Dad — to let us know that we mattered most. Our home was one of boundless, unconditional love: wherever we went, whatever we did, however we stumbled, we always knew we had a special place in her heart.

Mom rarely let us see her cry or get upset, much less angry, though “the dairy” (our family business) sometimes drove her to distraction. And there was that time Tommy Clayton knocked down all of her tulips with a baseball bat. And she may have raised her voice when she practically had to drag my brother out of bed for school.

When we struggled with something in our lives, she’d mostly listen and then quietly offer a comment or two. She had a way of suggesting, not criticizing. When we did something we knew Mom and Dad didn’t approve of, we just felt BAD.

Our cousins have commented that "Aunt Do’s house" always seemed so calm and happy. No drama.

Former students, too, have told us she was their favorite teacher. “She was just so nice.”

Dad was always the public face of their marriage, the outgoing one with the big laugh who never knew a stranger. Mom was his gentle but steady partner, keeping things running at home while balancing her own job and the logistics of raising four children.

Years later, she stood faithfully by his side in the hospital, day after day for nine months, saying only, “Where else would I be?” Some people worried that she’d be lost when he died. She missed him terribly, but she was so strong.

Mom had a backbone when required. Dad always said she’d get her Irish up. This was especially true when it came to defending her children or grandchildren. You didn’t mess with Magu’s kids. She might not confront anybody, but she’d get that look on her face and you just knew that person was off her list.

She held all of our families together at one point or another — retiring from teaching to help watch my sister’s kids, asking my brother and his family to move Blog Photoin temporarily while they were between houses, helping my oldest brother and his family resettle to North Carolina, and moving to Champaign with us for several months when my son was a baby.

When each of us got married, our parents welcomed the new in-laws to the family by saying, “Call us Mom and Dad.” And they did. Mom never judged (I’m thinking about my brother-in-law’s motorcycles here) and rarely uttered a critical word.

Mom included the in-laws in every gift-giving opportunity — and there were many in our family — choosing presents with the same thoughtfulness she applied to her own kids and balancing everything in her Christmas ledger. Because to her, they were her children. Marriage had doubled her family. My sister’s husband has always said that if all in-laws were like Mom, there wouldn’t be any mother-in-law jokes.

Mom handled her health struggles and the transitions that came with them with the usual grace. Even toward the end, she was able to smile at a funny remark or a big hug from her great-grandson — and especially when her beloved grandchildren came for a visit.

It’s never easy to say goodbye. But all the wonderful things about Mom have been passed on to three more generations. Her love of mysteries and Bill McClellan columns. Her affinity for chocolate, Christmas and Big Birthday celebrations. Her devotion to children.

Mom’s legacy is her life — and a family where all the kids and grandkids and in-laws genuinely like each other and can’t wait to be together again. Someone used the word “seamless.” Mom and Dad taught us from the beginning that family was paramount and that we should always value each other. They filled our lives with enough happiness and love to make that easy.


Julie Wurth blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos: Mary Dolores Wurth at her granddaughter's wedding in St. Louis in 2009. Jonathan Kirshner/Lovelight Photography

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