She was a gem to the very end of a storied life

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Nearly a decade ago next week, a bright light dimmed in my world with the loss of the family matriarch.

Her passing, at age 89, was a jolt, even if it had been expected for weeks as lung disease robbed her of the ability to catch a breath. Her death, unavoidably, also served as a deathblow to her husband of nearly 67 years, who was a lost soul for the following 13 months before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

In the immediate wake of her death, however, father and son would set out on an adventure that would give both of us a greater appreciation for her weekly willingness to navigate very scary places – big box grocery stores that rival the size of Yellowstone Park.

Our visit to one such place tested our collective manhood, leaving us somewhat unscathed but both convinced that we had just been through a life-altering experience.

My mother and his wife raised four children, so she was no stranger to checkout lines at grocery stores. She also was a doting grandmother to five more, all “growing boys” with appetites that pinched many a family checkbook. Her first great-grandchild, who arrived a week before her death, figured to follow suit based on his birth weight of nearly 10 pounds.

Yet, dear Mom, who died some six months short of her 90th birthday, never told me that you needed a tour guide – and better yet, police protection – to traverse today’s megalithic-sized food emporiums.

My sisters must have known the score when they asked the father-and-son combination to “go to the store to pick up a few items.” It was their way to teach us a hard lesson on the true realities of life without our guiding family light.

We ventured forth with cash and grocery list in hand, opting first to warm up to the task by stopping for a “quick” oil change at the nearby lube place. It proved to be a good test of our mettle, as the $24.99 “manager’s special” soon ballooned to triple digits as we fended off requests for a car wash, wiper blades, radiator flush, air conditioning check, and hair cuts. They may have even asked if we wanted to place a wager on the outcome of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

By the time we left the pearly gates of the oil change place we were already running late for our appointed duty at the grocery store, surely causing great alarm –or bemusement – among my sisters back at the family homestead.

Once inside the grocery store, we knew we were in early trouble when we encountered a bank, a Starbucks, a pharmacy, a hair salon, and at least a half-dozen women offering taste samples of food products to come. In other words, who needs breakfast when you can taste the freebies at the grocery store?

We then began wandering aimlessly about, traveling from one corner of the complex to the next, and then back and forth several more times, narrowly averting several head-on collisions with seasoned shoppers bent on making it to the checkout line in record time, whatever the human cost. The last near-miss proved too much for my Dad, who calmly remarked, “Don’t your sisters know any better than to send two grown men to the grocery store unattended?”


I took comfort in knowing that my Mom must have been smiling at that, knowing full well that the two boys in the family were ill equipped to handle such mindless mayhem.

She, on the other hand, was seemingly always in her comfort zone, perhaps because she knew all about the school of hard knocks from an early age. Within days of being born in 1919, the youngest of nine children, she would lose one of her brothers. He was killed by his – and her – father in a hunting accident. The despair that her father felt was understandably profound, offering him an excuse to abandon his family for good, just months after the tragedy.

Her mother then was left to raise eight children on her own, utilizing her skills as a seamstress to put food on the table, bartering for the basic necessities of life over the course of the next two decades. Somehow she succeeded, passing along the importance of faith and the value of hard work to each of her offspring.

Her youngest learned the lessons especially well, excelling in school and throughout a nursing career that touched lives in several of the state’s major hospitals, caring for patients in cancer wards and burn units, certainly two of the grimmest places on earth.

Still, she was invariably upbeat, flashing a friendly smile and offering an encouraging word to family, friends, and strangers alike. She always viewed the glass in “half full” terms, even when any of her four children had given her periodic reasons to see it otherwise.

Her positive outlook was never more so than in her dying days, when disease and injuries had racked her body, leaving her in a skeletal state of some 85 pounds. It was then that her true glory shown through, acting ever the mother, even on her deathbed.

There she would whisper, in a barely audible voice, her love and concern for her husband, three daughters, and one son. She longed for the chance to see the smiles of her five grandsons once again. She especially was happy to know that she had become a great-grandmother for the first time, just days before she would pass away.

Before she sunk into a comatose state, she even had a chance to tell us her favorite place in a world she had traveled far and wide. Hong Kong? Tokyo? London? Paris? New York? San Francisco?

“The side yard doing cartwheels,” she said with a smile.

It’s a smile we will forever return.