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a woman of substance

Her name was Jacquelyn. The sound of it, even the spelling of it, is graceful and evokes a vision of beauty. She was aptly named. Born in a dirty, industrial town in northwest Indiana, she stood out, even before she could stand. A finalist in the campaign to pick the face which still graces the labels on Gerber baby products, she was beautiful from her first day. Her smile lit up her face. It wasn’t a shy, hesitant smile. It was a confident, no-holding-back grin, that even as a baby, had a spark of mischief in it. She was born during the Great Depression, but her father had a good job, and she never was personally touched by the horrors of poverty that decimated so many of the time. She grew up adored and poised and possessed of an intelligence she was taught to keep under wraps around boys as she became older. She learned dance and piano and, in a world fraught with depression and despair, she shone.

When she was eleven her beloved father was called into active duty with the Army. She had the mumps and didn’t get to say goodbye to him, because her home was under quarantine and he had been kept away because of rumors that the US would soon enter WWII. Soon the family joined him as he was sent from post to post across the American southeast where he trained the troops who were being sent to Europe and the Pacific to fight in the second World War. She lived in Mississippi and Louisiana where she first encountered prejudice. As a Roman Catholic family in the deep south of the 1940s, they discovered that the Klan didn’t cotton to “Papists” any more than they did to Blacks. She remembered the incident of a burning cross in their front yard, but she was quick to explain that it did not mirror the treatment that she received in school where her effervescent personality won her many friends and admirers. When she was fifteen, she moved back to northern Indiana and joined the friends she had left behind and started high school and a time of dates and dances and being crowned a beauty queen. She went on to college, first to a small woman’s school in Missouri, and then on to Purdue University. While on a date with the football great and future actor, Alex Karras, she met the man she would marry.

Thomas was enthralled with the outgoing beauty and never ever quite got over his great fortune that he won her as his wife. Like so many woman of her time, she went home after her engagement and announced that she was concerned with her future husband’s safety traveling back and forth to visit her at school on weekends, and she left college one semester from graduation. They had a happy life, moving to central Indiana where their first three children were born, and then onto central Illinois where they settled and prospered. Their lives were touched with tragedy when their fifth child died the day after his premature birth. But, on the whole their life was full and happy. Always too thin, she almost died with the birth of her last child, a son born two months prematurely, at a weight of only two pounds. But, after two months in the hospital he came home and joined the big, boisterous family and thrived. For the most part, Jacquelyn lived the life she dreamed of as a girl; her husband was financial successful and she was a busy homemaker raising her family in the suburbs. There were trips to the Bahamas, Las Vegas and Hawaii where Thomas got to show off his pride and joy and celebrate his success with his adored wife.

It was a good life. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the life she expected.They were living the American Dream of the 1960s, until, suddenly, it all unraveled. Thomas became ill with blood clots in his legs, and unexpectedly, at the age of 41, he died, leaving a 38 year-old widow with six children between the ages of 15 and 2. He provided for them financially, and they never wanted for anything materially, but she feared her children growing up without a father, and she married a man who turned her American Dream into a nightmare.If life had prepared her for her first 38 years, nothing in her experience taught her how to survive the next three. Blending two families into one household looked from the outside like a real life version of the new television show “The Brady Bunch.” But the television family didn’t have an alcoholic father figure. Mr Brady wasn’t a possessive, abusive drunk who shattered the dreams of his beautiful new wife and permanently scarred the psyches of his own children and his step-children.

But Jacquelyn survived, and she made sure her children survived. Against the teachings of her faith, she divorced and moved her children to Florida. She put the horrors of the past several years away, and she started over. She was still young and beautiful, and if her smile wasn’t as ready as it once was, her confidence and hard-won strength hid her pain behind the grace and poise she learned as a girl. Her life was no longer the stuff of a young girl’s dreams, but she raised her children and saw four of them marry and shared her love with 9 grandchildren. Just as she entered a new chapter of her life, the one where she could focus on herself and enjoying her many friends, where she could put away the major responsibilities of parenthood, she became ill. Within the year, her life ended. She was only 58. She was still thin and beautiful. She was still popular and admired. She was still the girl whose life held such promise growing up. In many ways, her life was a perfect example of life in America in the twentieth century. It wasn’t a slow, romantic period in history. It was polluted with war and hatred and scandal and messy,but needed social change. It saw great strides in science and technology and mammoth challenges to the family structure. And it was the backdrop of one woman’s life. If she had lived, she would now be 82, an old woman. She was spared the ravages of old age. But she missed knowing her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the youngest who was born on the anniversary of her death last December.

She was in many ways typical. She was never famous. She never led a major corporation or met with world leaders. But she was important to all who knew her. Her faith was an inspiration to others and a source of strength throughout her life. She was special in so many ways, and i wanted to share her story with you, because she was one of the most important people in my life.

She was my mother.

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