A few weeks ago, my mother closed her eyes in her own home for the last time — with a rosary in her hands.
In that moment, she held in her heart a lifetime of happy memories of her seven kids, amazing and abundant friends, a marriage to the absolute love of her life – and knowing she left the world in a better place because she was in it.
Here’s a bit about Joanie Dunne…
Joanie was born smack in the hurricane of the depression in 1929; one of three kids in a young family in Oak Park, Illinois.
Her dad, Bill Lawley, paid his way through Loyola Law School by playing piano in local clubs, and then lit it up in the banking business in his early thirties, while owning a hotel down the street in the town Frank Lloyd Wright built.
As with most folks, they pretty-much lost everything in the depression – while trying to hold on to their confidence. Her dad let the most challenged folks in their Catholic parish live for free in their hotel so families could try to get their lives back on some sense of a stable track.
But this was the only world my mom knew. Joanie was cute, creative, smart, and just full of real. She was the belle of the ball at Ascension Grade School and Trinity High School, and a class officer at Rosary College – graduating with top grades and a ton of the greatest lifelong pals.
Enter smitten, 24-year-old Jim Dunne, who grew up only a couple blocks away. With a college degree in his pocket and his Navy service days behind him, he was 100% Irish-Catholic, good-looking, full of spit and fire, played anything that resembled a sport – and a look in his baby-blue eyes that he was going to tackle the world and anybody that got in his way.
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes seven kids in a baby carriage.”
With three kids and another on the way, my mom and dad borrowed what they didn’t have to buy a starter home in the suburb of La Grange — down the western railroad tracks and chock-full of schools, churches, town parades, green parks, and maple tree-covered streets of families with station wagons full of kids.
For the seven of us; we didn’t really grow up in La Grange — we grew up in St. Francis Parish; the epicenter of our pals, our sports, our grade school, and our church.
Our mom sent us off to school, fed us when we came home every day from St. Francis at lunchtime, laundried all our clothes, cooked us a full dinner – and everything, everything else in between.
My dad was off at the crack of dawn to drive downtown to build his entrepreneurial heating-oil business — and he put in the hours knowing he was looking in the eye of trying to figure out how to pay for 7 kids with college dreams.
My mom was always there for us. She was there to shop at the Jewel for us, buy us clothes, sew our clothes, take us to the doctor, drive us to downtown museums, tuck us in when we were sick, and pick-any-verb-you-can-possibly-think-of in our seven lives.
In the fantastic, muggy, buggy, hot summer days of growing up, we were all out the back screen door at 8 in the morning to go play every sport ever made up. Like clockwork, we’d all be back in the kitchen at lunchtime – each trotting in with our closest gillion friends. We knew my mom would be teed up to pour us drinks from a bucket, I mean a bucket – of kool-aid sugar-water. She’d slap together liver sausage and baloney sandwiches and grill up delicious spam sandwiches for every kid in the town.
Her life was our lives.
And she had her own thing going on, too. She was in the kinda-Chicago-famous “Sweet Adeline’s” singing group, she was the first to raise her hand in a ton of school & church activities, a girl scout leader, and sang in the church choir in many, many hundreds of services and funerals.
But Joanie was fun. To her pals, the ‘Queen of the Hors d’oeuvres,’ Joanie was the ‘Pearl Mesta’ of La Grange — throwing the best-costumed parties in town.
Everybody, everybody in town was friends with Joanie and Jim Dunne. Jim, absolutely bigger than life; and Joanie – who could so wonderfully, quietly, and modestly just illuminate any room.
All us kids remember how we would be going out the back of the house, and my dad would give us a light crack on the back of the head with, “Don’t forget. You’re a Dunne.” My mom would walk us outside, look us in the eyes – and tell us to go be ‘nice.’
That was the special sauce for all of us kids; a dad that gave us a north star of ambitions, and a mom who shaped our hearts.
“A small act of kindness may be a smile, a wink, a note, a call, a look, a nod, a word, even a touch,” Joanie would tell us. “It is the cherished gift you never, ever forget.”
My mom blinked and she was 91.
She had years of memories in-between of sending all of us off to colleges around the country, summer sunsets in condos on Lake Michigan and in Marco Island; and fabulous, inspiring, never-stop-laughing yearly “Camp Dunne” trips all over the country with my siblings’ spouses and our 21 kids.
My mom once said respect was a mother’s gift to a child. She said love came naturally. Respect was the real gift.
Six years ago, Mom buried her husband and her best friend after 62 wonderful, rich years.
North of that, she had a revolving door of belly laughs and visits with all her kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, and a whole big bunch of lifelong, great buddies.
She was always paying attention, well-read, and wouldn’t miss her nightly “Wheel of Fortune,” barking out the answers before the contestants would – as she’d take a little sip of her sunset Southern Comfort and tonic.
And one day, a few weeks ago, she woke up, sat in her living room chair — and decided it was time.
When she passed away in her home around her family, there was something in my mother’s hand that she had in her hand every day of her life.
It was her lifeline to a conversation with another mother she was forever devoted to… Mary.
Her many-times-a-day prayers would start with the hello of, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women…”
I so hope my mother was right — that there is a heaven.
If my mom were to meet Mary – I know they’d be pals. I can picture the two of them on a walk.
Mary would say something about how people often remember her at the birth of her child – but how that’s only the beginning of being a mom.
They’d talk about how it’s in the ‘always’ when a mother blossoms. How it’s holding a frightened child in your arms and letting them know they’re in the safest place. It’s picking just the right times to whisper in their ear to look for the wonder of it all. And it’s when you have to let them go and find their way in the world.
I can picture Mary sharing stories of her teenage child and how he’d tell her what he wanted to be in his life – and Mary cheering him on to go do it. Go be it. Go find it. Go live it. And to be nice.
They’d look at each other, take a moment and smile, and just nod at each other.
Mary would say, “You got it right, Joanie. Respect. That’s a mother’s gift.”