Two Peas in a Pod

One of my fave pics from this past week with Nona. These two have so much in common. Two peas in a pod, I say. Both are the second-born in their families, both the second daughters. I know Lola really appreciated it whenever Nona pointed out that it’s “a second child thing” … almost like a badge of honor. These two are part of a club, and since I’m the oldest daughter myself, I don’t belong to it. (But Aunt Jill does, too!)

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Special Guest

This photo was taken the day we said “auf weidersehen” to my mother a few weeks before we moved to Germany in late 2014. Despite constant check-ins via Skype, Facebook, and messages over the years, I know she’s going to have a heart attack when she sees how big the kids have grown since that day.

And of course, Junior’s ready to meet his Nona! See you soon!

End of the Visit

Martin and the kids are on their way home as I type this. Last night during our phone conversation, one girl seemed a bit resigned and the other girl burst into tears at the idea of leaving their grandparents and endless days of kayaking, amusement parks, limitless Nutella jars, shopping sprees and whatever else my family lavished on them. Continue reading

No Limit To the Power of a Good Woman

The following is the eulogy I gave at my grandmother’s memorial service over the weekend.  It was crafted with help from my step-mother Linda who had input from her siblings and Mary Jean herself. 

Grandma MJ in her late teens

“There is no limit to the power of a good woman.” 

That was the name of an award Mary Jean once earned from [a local high school there in Cincinnati.] She received it because of work she did there, designing stage sets for student musicals, serving as the PTA president, and co-chairman with Bill Fanning to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary.

Yet, I find it fitting as a description of Mary Jean and the life she lived, and the life we honor here today. There is just one thing I would add to it, though. There is no limit to the power and HEART of a good woman.

And Mary Jean was a good woman.

She was born on April 12, 1930 here in Cincinnati, where she grew up with her late-sister Rita and brother Bert. By all accounts, she was a bright, feisty, and popular girl who made friends for life. After high school, she attended two years at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, which is where she met a dashing military veteran named Charles, who she married in June 1951.

He was the love of her life for more than 61 years.

She incorporated her arts talent and knowledge in so many creative ways while raising their six children, Chuck, Bill, Mike, Linda, Sue, and Karen. There were handmade Halloween costumes: Batman & Robin, Little Red Riding Hood, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and more she kept in a trunk for playtime. Frazzled jeans were hemmed, prom dresses were crafted and sewn.

Christmas cookies were baked by the hundreds, and given away as gifts to family and friends. She thought she was being crafty by hiding these cookie gifts in the bottom of garment bags in the attic, but rumor has it, six little detectives were always able to sniff them out, thinking Mary Jean surely wouldn’t miss just one cookie.

She was known as a real “bandsaw bandit” creating patterns and cut-outs for all kinds of wood crafts, to include a life-size manager stable scene complete with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, three kings, angels, shepherds, and sheep, for all the neighbors on their street, where she and Charley raised their family.

Over the years, there was “Girls Nite” with her girlfriends from grade school and high school at St. Ursela. By then wives and mothers, these ladies met once a month, rotating amongst their homes, always bringing chips and dip, and lots of chatter while playing Bridge.

Mary Jean’s daughters, Linda, Karen, and Sue especially loved when the ladies came to the Magness house. The girls always tried to listen in on the grown up talk and sneak into the circle to refill the chips and dip, to just briefly be part of all the activity.

And activity was a constant at the the house.

With six kids, that was inevitable. Somehow, Mary Jean was always on top of it. She attended football games and swim meets, baton lessons and parades, Girl and Boy scout meetings. She supported all her children, making sure all of them got their college education so they could achieve their career goals.

And when her kids grew up and left the house to begin their own lives, she always kept her home open and inviting to them. As any parent would, she happily welcomed them back in when they needed the support, and just as happily, helped them move out again, too.

Even with her kids out of the house, Mary Jean stayed busy. There was volunteering at Mercy Fest, where she made Christmas ornaments and decorations for fundraising for a local hospital. She served as parish council president at her church, helping with the holiday walk, angel follies, serving as a CCD teacher, and at church festivals. She was also an associate member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph since 1984, co-founding the Ms Margaret’s Guild, meeting for luncheons to share faith and prayers for others.

With Grandpa Charley and Grandma MJ at the beach in 2006


I should pause here to mention that I learned of these things about Mary Jean a little bit after the fact.

I first met Mary Jean when I was 17 years old. She came into my life, and the lives of my sisters Jill and Jinger, when my dad Larry married Mary Jean’s daughter Linda.

I was still in high school, obviously still living at home, and was well aware of the awkwardness that arises when two families blend together.

Would this new family like us, and accept us? Must we always add that caveat, that we are the step kids? How would we make up for our lack of history?

And what would we call her?

The thing I didn’t yet know, but would quickly learn about Mary Jean, was that her loyalty and commitment to family didn’t stop with those connected through name and blood.

If she loved you, you were family.

From the very beginning, she loved us. And insisted we call her Grandma MJ.

No caveats about being the stepkids, no explanations needed. She opened her heart to us, and we became a part of the grandkid gang with Charlie and Katie, Daniel, Robbie and Sarah. Years later, that love and acceptance extended to my own children, her great-grandkids, and my sister’s daughter.

Here are the things I know about Grandma MJ from countless family get-togethers with Chuck, Bill and Sandy, Mike, Julie, Sue and Tracey, and all the rest, trips to the beach, barbecues on the banks of the Ohio River, lunches, Easter egg hunts, and visits.

Mary Jean was small in stature, but huge in personality, and so full of energy.

She lived life to the fullest. Not a day went by that she wasn’t involved in something with her friends, family, church, and community. Not a single day.

She always had her cigarettes, and her beverage of choice nearby.

She always walked us to the door, and stood at the window, waving goodbye when we left her home, never moving until we were no longer in sight.

She loved her memories, and kept thick scrapbooks full of them. She enjoyed researching her genealogy and left behind books full of information. Photos of friends and family decorated her walls at home.

And she loved to talk.

And she always had to have the last word. The very last one. Once her family accepted that, they loved her more and more. She continued to use her art and creativity to bring love and joy to others.

She personally created all the centerpieces for my sister’s wedding reception when Jill married Greg, and every Christmas, my children are creating memories surrounded by her amazing woodwork and ornaments. She did this for all her grandkids.

Details were important to her. She never forgot a birthday or anniversary. Not a single one. I received my first birthday card from her when I turned 18 years old, and my husband got his first card just months after we were married. In fact, a few weeks ago, when Grandma MJ was checked into the hospital a few days before my son turned two years old, she turned to Linda and my Dad, and said, “Can you let Julie and Martin know that Jaz’s birthday card is going to be a little late?”

All the things she was facing at that moment, and she was concerned that my little boy wouldn’t get his card.

That was Grandma MJ.

She was sentimental, but also very direct and no-nonsense.

When Grandpa Charley passed away last year, she and my oldest daughter were talking about it, and as my daughter expressed her sadness and fear of others dying, Grandma MJ was matter-of-fact. “This is life,” she said. “When it’s our time to go, it’s time to go, you know? It happens to everybody, and we just gotta hope we lived a good life and love each other so when it’s time, we can accept it.”

Grandma MJ was ready for whatever God had in mind for her. She was ready to die, and she wanted to be with her dear husband Charley again.

The family all together for our grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary in 2011.

And because Grandma MJ had lived such a good life, because she loved us so much and did so much to show us that, we were ready, too.

Sad, but ready.

While MJ, of course, could not be here to have the last word, I would like to share with you the last words she heard before she passed.

They were said by her daughter Linda, who crawled into bed with her, and whispered the following in her ear: “I give you permission to return to God. When God is ready for you, you can release your body and relax in your essence. There will be no more suffering, you are forgiven, you are loved. You have been a great mother, and all your work is done. I’m so proud to be your daughter. Return to God, return to home. No need to say goodbye, you will be with me in spirit always.” 

We love you, and will miss you, Grandma MJ.

Good Life: Make Every Moment Count

Grandma MJ waving goodbye to us after a visit in 2012

Our wonderful, feisty, talented, caring and so very beloved Grandma MJ passed away early Sunday morning.

The week earlier, she was admitted into the hospital due to some difficulty breathing. A lung scan revealed spots, more tests revealed signs of cancer, and treatment would have been long and aggressive.

Not surprisingly, MJ declined treatment.

When her husband, Grandpa Charley, died last year, Grandma MJ talked with Miss C and me at his funeral reception. Miss C was candid about her feelings of sadness and fear about death, and MJ was frank with her.

“This is life,” she said. “When it’s our time to go, it’s time to go, you know? It happens to everybody, and we just gotta hope we lived a good life and love each other so when it’s our time, we can accept it.”

I reminded Miss C of that conversation when I first broke the news to her that Grandma MJ wasn’t doing too well. The decision was quickly made to move Grandma MJ from the hospital to hospice care.

Because of the uncertainty and logistics involved in bringing the whole family out to Ohio, Martin and I decided to stay put here at home in Northern Virginia, knowing Dad and Linda would be sure Grandma MJ knew we were thinking of her. (Miss C even sent a few words in an email to be read to her.) Of course, my father kept Martin and me updated with text messages throughout the days, encouraging us to carry on with our lives as normal.

This meant keeping our plans to celebrate Jaz’s second birthday with a party on Saturday. As Martin and I decorated, it felt weirdly familiar. I pointed out that just three years ago, we were doing the same thing with Lola and her second birthday party, when my grandmother Ninny was in hospice care at the time. She passed away just a few days later.

For Jaz, we had invited over some friends, and soon our house was filled with the chaotic energy of children chasing each other, playing with toys, and having a great time while we adults hung around, talking about parenting, jobs, and life in DC.

Every so often, I sneaked away to check my phone to get an update from my Dad. I read about how they were playing her favorite music for her. How they were increasing her pain meds. How the hospice nurses felt that maybe the end was an hour away … maybe sooner … and how Grandma MJ held on just a little bit longer.

He even sent a few photos. One showed my stepmother Linda laying beside Grandma MJ with her arms wrapped around her. And in another photo, MJ was sitting up in the bed with most of her grown children and some of her grandchildren surrounding her, all very attentive and comforting.

The images were moving and even hopeful, yet the news was always the same: the end was very, very near.

Later in the evening, the birthday party winded down, and our friends started to round up the kids and head to the door.

And as expected, this took a bit of effort.

Leaving to go anywhere with children does not happen easily. There’s the gathering of all your belongings. Finding shoes. Finding keys. There’s cajoling and begging for the kids to get to the car. And once all the kids are ready, the parents always seem to bring up another topic of conversation, and then there’s some more standing around, talking and laughing while the kids stand around, exasperated that the adults are taking too long to get on the road.

It’s a cycle that swirls every time.

As the hostess, I always feel a little awkward at this point in the visit. Knowing how it is with kids, I try and help herd the children along, encouraging them to listen to their parents. And when needed, I gently urge the adults to move along too, toward the door, but never too eagerly, because truth be told, I don’t mind if our guests stay for a long time, and I never want to seem in a rush to get them out of my house.

Far from it.

Yet, I also know that for many, it’s a long drive to their homes, and it’s late, and the kids are tired, and it’s been a long day. So, in that funny way of feeling both reluctant for friends to leave, but grateful for the wonderful visit, there are hugs and farewells, and Martin and I stay at the door to watch them go until we can’t see them anymore.

As I did this with my friends after my son’s birthday party, I couldn’t help but think of my family in Cincinnati, too, who were, in a way, doing the same thing for Grandma MJ.

We didn’t want her to leave, we would have loved for more time, but it was her time to go, and so in the greatest act of love, the family stayed with her until she was gone to where we can’t see her anymore.

But there is knowledge and faith that just beyond, there was Grandpa Charley, and her sister Rita, and her daughter Karen, and there is comfort to know that she went from our arms into theirs.

Martin and I learned about her passing early Sunday morning. We told the girls individually shortly after they woke up. Miss C has been through this before, but for Lola, she’s now old enough to grasp and understand it a little more, and we wanted to break the news in a way that was appropriate for the both of them.

We will soon be traveling to Ohio to be with our family and to memorialize Grandma MJ and her life.

A good life lived in a way that made every moment count, and left our hearts full of peace, love, and many wonderful memories.