Friday, September 16, 2016

My Mom Shirley - Her Life and Times

My mother, Shirley Jean Anderson Wilkinson,
 left us on August 9th, 2016, after many struggles with her health.
The last time I saw her she looked at me and said,
"I'm ready, you know. I want you to tell people that I was ready to go."
And I said I would.

We've been visiting the cemetery, Forest Hill in Duluth, Minnesota, nearly all my life, 
from since I was four and my brother
Mark died of an inoperable brain tumor,
and then after my father Gordie died in 2005.

Shirley tried to get there once or twice a year even when she lived in other areas.

And now she is there, next to them both.

She spent her last year in this room in the Gables section of the Deerfield Presbyterian Homes
in New Richmond, Wisconsin.
They left this message on the table by the elevator.

We cleaned out her room, leaving behind a broken chair and her old easy
chair that she'd been sitting in for about the last ten years.

Sometimes it's the small things that get you.
Like finding her pill trays, that got more complicated as her health declined.

And an enigmatic list started for some fragment of thought that she had
been trying to complete in her last months, her script that had once been strong
and beautiful now cramped and hesitant.

She loved balloons! One of her favorite games was bat-the-balloon.
We played it with her even in her last weeks.

Here she is in 2013, all ready to go!

She was born in 1925 to Robert and Lillian Anderson.
These are Lil's parents, I believe, the Westlunds.

Grandma Lil hated the farm.

Lil married Bob, who had also grown up on a farm, and he
took her to Minneapolis, 
then to Duluth...

... but never back to the farm, except to visit.

Bob eventually opened his own CPA/Insurance company in Duluth.
Every night he smoked a cigar and drank a scotch.

Shirley was their first child.

Their second daughter was Carole...

...and their first son was Robert Junior, Bobby, 
who tragically died at the age of three about a month
after the family had moved to Duluth, by drowning,
in a stream in the backyard of a new friend.

My mother's brother Rod was born exactly two years to the day after Bobby drowned.

Her "gang" of friends got together as high school freshman in Duluth
when the girls asked the boys to a dance, 
and they hung around together for the next four years.
In the picture below, she and her boyfriend
Eugene Rheaume are the center couple. This picture was taken on December 7th, 1941, the
day that changed all of their lives.

She became engaged to Gene Rheaume before he went to war.
Some months later when she was walking home from skating one winter night, she heard footsteps and looked around but there was no one there. Then she heard his voice saying to her, “You won’t understand this now, but I want you to know that I love you and that everything will be okay.” 
She found out a few days later that he had been killed in action that day.

She and Gordie got together after he came back from his WWII experience on a Naval Convoy
in the North Atlantic while on the US Coast Guard Cutter Tampa.
He was the brother of one of her "gang" - Ginny Wilkinson
so they'd know each other for years.

But then they fell in love.

And got married.

Both Shirley and Gordie's parents had small lake cabins on Sand Lake in
Minnesota, about 50 miles southwest of Duluth,
so lake fun and sunbathing were a part of life.
You didn't have to be rich, or even comfortably middle class to own lake property then.
You just had to want to get away from the cold summer breezes coming off of 
Lake Superior in Duluth. They call it the "Air Conditioned City."

Mark and I came along in 1948 and 1949, respectively.

By a quirk of fate, my dad was called back into the service because he'd signed up
for the Reserves to make some extra money.
No one had predicted the Korean war. 
He wasn't happy about leaving his wife and two kids, but he went.
His leg was injured not in the war, however, but in a car crash in Florida where two people died.

My mother always notes that I was "contrary" as a child, like in the picture below where
I apparently didn't feel like smiling for the camera.

But then, when my brother Mark turned five,
he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died when he
was just starting Kindergarten. 

This was a terrible blow to the family.
I don't think we ever really recovered from it.

But just like in her own family, 
there was a second daughter, Sherry, and a second son, Dan.

And so life went on.

The picture below shows one of the last times she came down to the lake
when they had a place in Minong, Wisconsin, that we all enjoyed for years.
Her knees began to pain her, and once that started, she didn't get around
as much or as well, even after her knee replacements.

Their last real home together was once again in Duluth,
on Barker's Island which is on a small inlet that leads to the larger bay that leads to
Lake Superior.
The picture below was taken in 2004, their last summer there before
my father died in 2005.

I made this picture for my mother after his death - it's from a photo I took 
of a place on the North Shore of Lake Superior
 called Lover's Lane where they used to go when they were young,
and I "cloned" them in using Photoshop.

The Christmas before my dad died, I had collected rocks for everyone, most of
them from the beaches on the East End of Long Island on the Atlantic,
and I hauled them all home for holiday gifts.
These two symbolize my mom and dad, the bottom one
my dad who was the rock beneath us all, and the top one
my mom, who was rounder, and always on him for something or other (lol),
and the green streaks matched her eyes.

Here she is being comforted by her brother Rod after Gordie's funeral.

She became the head of the family, the Matriarch.

She loved holidays, and she loved being around family.
She always had a special Christmas outfit.

She was a wonderful grandma...

...and a good sport.

Here she is playing WII bowling...

...rolling the strikes. I think she beat us all.

She lived to play cards...

...Phase Ten being her late-life favorite, and by default, our favorite, too.

She was also an artist.

She loved to paint the shoreline of Lake Superior.
She was very dedicated to making paintings and drawings for many years.

I never knew, however, that she was also a skilled cartoonist! I found these two
tucked away in a photo album - I'd never seen them before.

And as I mentioned before, she loved her grandkids!
Here she's hugging Andrew and Shannon.

Every Christmas she gave them new pajamas.

Above is Aaron circa late '70's, and below may have been the last Christmas pair she gave - to great grandson Elliott in 2015.

Here's Derek all grown up on his wedding day.

And above and below are Ali and Chris, grandkids who came into her life when
Sherry and Brett "blended" their families.

Andrew is getting a game of cards ready, above,
and below his wife Jennifer is hanging out with her new Grandma-in-law.

Shirley's shining head was a beacon in our family celebrations.

Then she became a Great-Grandma with the arrival of
Arya and Kellen Campbell, and Elliott Keeley Yonda.

Arya was the first GGC, Kellen the second...

...and Elliott was the third, the last she will get to meet.

Family meant everything to her.

In 2014 we celebrated Gordie's birthday and it turned out that the candles we bought
wouldn't go out - they were trick candles. We could pretty much hear Gordie laughing
when we had to scuttle the wildly burning candles in the sink!

Then Shirley began to have falls.

Pain of various sorts had been a staple of her life,
and she'd never gotten into exercise, in spite of (because of?) our constant encouragement.
 Exercise seemed to her just more pains added to the ones she already had
and she never understood its benefits.

So she began to grow weaker.

For a while she had to be in a rehab place, which she hated.

She worked hard to get out of there and return to her independent-living apartment
in the Deerfield, which she loved.
And she made it back for maybe another few months
but the falls kept happening, and we realized she needed more care than
even the home-health-care people could provide, so the day came
when we had to move her to the nursing home area of the Deerfield complex,
called the Gables.

She didn't like it, but she was a trooper.
She always thought it was just temporary, until she got back on her feet
and felt like her old self again.
Which never happened, of course.

But she had a few more good times out and about...

Shannon and Michael had a backyard summer celebration of their earlier January wedding in 2015...

...and we had a fabulous 90th birthday party for her at the Deerfield in October, 2015.

And we bought her a fabulous pair of shades at the hospital gift shop.


As the months went by, she was less and less able to focus
and clarify her thoughts.
She also had a condition called "Charles Bonnet Syndrome"
that affects people who have lost all or part of their sight.
The mind substitutes visions and hallucinations in place
of what they would be seeing normally,
so she would see little creatures running around, 
her son-in-law turning into Barnacle Bill the Sailor Man,
strange patterns and colors,
men coming in the room to fix something in the (non-existent) attic, etc. and etc.

It helped reduce her symptoms by stimulating the eyesight that she had left
by looking through old photobooks and recalling old memories.
Above she looks at pictures of her mom, Lillian,
and below pictures of her first son, Mark.

When Aaron and I left her after Christmas of 2015, 
she was not totally with it.
It was sad to leave her that way.

But in April I came back for a visit, and she put on her lipstick, earrings and glasses
and said she wanted us to take pictures of her.
So we did.

But there were trials ahead. More falls, more wounds, more weakness.

But she still loved to put on her nice clothes, her blouses and scarves,
and if we couldn't go out in the car to shop, we'd go to the
gift shop in the building where they always had a beautiful selection
of scarves.

Shannon suggested we try seeing if a baby doll would perk her up,
as she'd seen happen before with elderly woman,
but Shirley seemed quite anxious about who would take care of it.

She was declining. We eventually put her on Hospice care.

It took her longer and longer to eat, so during one meal Sherry and I googled how to make
napkins into roses, which we did pretty successfully.

On one of our last visits, Shannon and I took her for a walk in the new Deerfield Memorial Garden.

When Andrew visited, she posed in front of her favorite tree on the premises,
one that she wanted to have in her next Christmas photo.

But she was getting more and more tired.
Below, this is one of the last pictures we have of her while still among the living.

On August 9th, she left our realm and went to see all those who went before.
The beautiful plant below was sent by Courtney and her family.

Dan and Angie took her on her last ride, from New Richmond to Duluth, 
in the back of his pickup.

She loved her scarves and her lipsticks, so we sent some of her favorites with her.

Rest in peace, Mom. We hold you in our hearts and memories, and
we will keep your stories alive.


  1. Jeanne, you have an wonderful pictorial legacy, I so appreciate your your sharing it. After my parents departed, the photos of their life story and the generations before and after, were very welcome. More comforting still are the dreams I have of them. I consider them visits and extraordinarily, it's like they're still here. I was so bereft after my father passed, I was numb. Soon after I had a dream of him. He wore his Burberry raincoat and favorite hat and looking directly at me said "Stop worrying, it's like being on a cruise". Since that dream both my parents have visited often. You're mother was undoubtedly proud of you, your sons and Elliot. Glad he came along in time to meet her. Again thanks so much for this personal view of your beautiful family. Sending you a big hug.

    1. Thanks so much for your response to this post. I love the comment from your father in your dream - it's like being on a cruise! I like to think of our next adventure in those terms. Hugs to you also.

    2. Thanks, Tracy. It's been a long journey with her. Many moments when I think I should call her, then I remember...

  2. A beautiful tribute to your Mom.....TLL*****