Her Life Was Her Message

My bonus mother, Winnie, left her mortal body on February 19, 2021, after two days of being unresponsive. At age 97, she left behind 71 descendants and countless others who dearly loved her and felt joy in her presence.

I first met Winnie when I was 18 and she was 45. She had birthed 9 children and grieved 4 miscarriages. When I met her, she and husband Herb were in the midst of raising these 9 and life was a whirlwind of activity. What most impressed me and intimidated me were her life disciplines and her spiritual disciplines, but mainly her life disciplines. Those I witnessed as a particular way to do laundry, dishes, set a table, iron clothes, grow plants, chop vegetables. She did it all with care, intention, and dedication. It all mattered. She was a hard worker from very young. She never shied away from any job no matter how hard, whether it was plowing a field with a horse and plow, washing clothes for 7 by hand with no running water, or baking ten or more loaves of bread each week. I was a young woman who did not much enjoy housework so had not given it much thought or attention, I just did what had to be done. Winnie raised and taught her gang of 9 with these disciplines including the admonition to carry a hanky, wear clean underwear, say the Memorare, and show gratitude, always gratitude. 

Winnie’s spiritual disciplines at that time included attending Mass, praying the rosary, morning and nighttime prayers, mealtime prayers, and countless other ways of prayer in the yearly cycle. Her spiritual disciplines included treating everyone they met or who came to the door, relative or stranger, as if they were important, as if they mattered, and were expected. This was a large and growing family who lived for a number of years on meager income, got their Christmas tree free late Christmas Eve when all the stock would be gotten rid of, received the undesirable cuts of meat from the butcher for free or at low cost. My husband Leo remembers Karo syrup sandwiches for lunch. The family grew almost all their food and when someone would show up at the door and it was mealtime another place or 10 places were set, and jars of canned food would be brought up from the cellar to supplement the meal and no one would be the wiser that this was not planned ahead of time.

In later years, Winnie’s spirituality and hospitality would bend with the changing times; children did not stay in the Catholic fold, divorces happened, and disappointments were felt. She never bent in her personal disciplines of prayer but allowed for another’s choices in their own path of life; we were never out of her love, her gaze never faltered. As life slowed for Winnie, living a path of love deepened within her; she exuded love. When Leo and I would bring her to Mass or any other event in the community, it was an occasion for all who knew her, each individual approaching her wheelchair or walker with delight and receiving her hug, the holding of a hand, and a ray of love. Even if she could not remember your name, you were her one and only for your time with her. 

Each of her 71 descendants and their spouses received the same. When you were with her you received her blessing through her touch, hugs, radiance of love and you felt like you were loved the most. Every summer the whole family has a three-day campout. One year we were all sitting around the campfire and it was time for Winnie to be brought back to her apartment. Without a word or a plan, all 50+ who were there at the time stood and formed a column to the waiting car, a path she walked down, turning to each one individually and giving her love, her final touch, her gaze of love, her giggles. I have only witnessed this with my guru, Amma, who people flock to for her gaze and her touch.

When I first met Leo and the family and we decided to marry, I knew then that I was not only marrying Leo; I was marrying this family. They were also my choice. He did not come without them. We have made our own life, our own unique way, but, and also, the family, particularly, Winnie, are never far from our mind and heart. Winnie was the bonus I did not always see fully or appreciate for her teachings. Later, I was 22 and full of my own life and drama and Leo was mine sweeping in Hai Phung Harbor during the Vietnam War. I was back here in Minnesota, worried, fearful for his safety and as mail was sometimes slow, I had not heard from him in some time. I went to Winnie with my pain and fears wanting some comfort from this mother, a cry on the shoulder, a pat on the head, “oh, so sad dear”. She looked at me with an attempt at patience with the words akin to, “Why do you worry about something you have no control over, that is beyond your scope of view, and has not happened. Life is right here before you, that is what you need to focus your attention on.” This woman who was still raising 5 teens in the house, working at St. Ben’s, and involved in countless community projects, then put me to work peeling potatoes or some other much needed task. Well, I was not too pleased with this response. I wanted her to massage my pain, wallow with me in this story created in my mind. It was only later that I could see her wisdom. This moment is what matters. It is the only one we have. Why create suffering when there is work that needs to be done and laughter to be felt – now.

I have many profound teachers who have brought me along in my spiritual life. I consider Winnie one of those teachers. Winnie was very human. She could make my head swirl with her hundreds of clippings, all that caught her eye and spoke both to her spirit and to her inner historian. She wanted us to read each and every one. These were how she shared her inner life with us as she did not have the words. She could also get lost in old pain, places that were hard for her to let go of and could still bring her to tears. But mostly I see her spiritual life. She was an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters in St. Joseph and I feel privileged to have her Benedictine prayer book that is full of her notes and highlights, marking what is most important to her. The name of the book is Work of God. It is a fitting title for this woman who embraced her life, always, as work of God. Who countless times offered up her day to God. I define God not as an out there being but as love, an all embracing, penetrating energy that imbues and connects all life into One. Winnie’s life was a work of love. Winnie became a vessel of love. It is hard to find all the words of gratitude for this dear woman, the ‘Queen Mum’ of our family. I hear her giggle and say, “It’s all good. It’s all gratitudes, gratitudes, gratitudes.”

11 Comments

  1. Beautiful, Janis, absolutely beautiful. What a wonderful woman. Lucky, lucky Leo to have her for his mom. And lucky you to get her (& the whole family) when you got Leo. I’m just sorry Joe & I never met her. P.S. Leo looks just like Winnie…..at least in this picture. love, Jean

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  2. Dear Jan, What a BEAUTIFUL reflection about Winnie!!! I feel so fortunate to have read it, and you write so well. It comes at a perfect time, too…I am sitting in my mom’s bedroom, as we 10 siblings all are keeping vigil with her in her last days. The hospice nurse says it may be today or tomorrow, but our mom is one tough cookie (even at only 62 pounds right now), so we shall see. She too is leaving a huge and loving legacy – 75 of us in the immediate family of descendants and our families.

    It has been a challenging year, with her spending 5 weeks last summer in hospitals and rehabs after a fall in her garden, breaking her hip. Since then we have cared for her 24/7. Yes, challenging, but very, very precious time. Her family has been the center of her life, and we only hope to continue to pass that deep love on to each generation.

    I found a couple things especially touching in your words about Winnie: the Memorarae has been a go-to prayer for me for decades and decades. My sister says the same, and prayed it recently with our mom. Also, Steve and I are Benedictine oblates (of St. John’s Abbey), and I liked reading that about her.

    I am thinking much of you and Leo at this time – may you be held in the compassion of our ever-living, ever-loving, ever-enfolding God.

    Blessings, Chris

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    1. Dearest Chris, i am deeply moved by your offering of your in the minute journey with your mother. My heart is with you. We were in that sacred vigil just a week ago. Such a precious time and privilege to be witness to this crossing over. I look forward to a time we can sit with a cup of tea and talk face to face and heart to heart.
      Love,
      Jan

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  3. This is a beautiful tribute, Jan. A whole way of life that is held up for thankfulness and praise. Thank you,

    Frank

    Frank and Kathy Schweigert

    1655 Blair Avenue

    Saint Paul, MN 55104

    Home: 651-645-4953

    Mobile: 651-208-5621

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  4. Jan!!! you are an INCREDIBLE writer! This is absolutely amazing! I feel like I’m privileged to know this beautiful woman… Leo’s mom… And your special second mom… Thank you for sharing your gift of writing and the privilege of getting to know this beautiful and Precious woman!!

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  5. Dear Jan,
    My mom passed on over 20 years ago but your so tender loving writing brought back so many wonderful memories of her and her love of life. Her death certificate said “failure to thrive” which was a total insult to a 94 year old woman who lived life to the fullest right to the end. Thank you for such a wonderful gift of your writing.

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