Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: Lessons from a Beautiful Life, 1921-2015

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Join Janine Pumilia, our managing editor, as she reflects on some of the best advice and wisdom her mother had to offer.

Janine: "Mom and Dad with my son Blake, on his first birthday in 1990. Blake is now Graphics Director at Northwest Quarterly Magazine. He played many a mean game of Scrabble with his foxy Grandma, right up to the month she died."

Janine: “Mom and Dad with my son Blake, on his first birthday in 1990. Blake is now Graphics Director at Northwest Quarterly Magazine. He played many a mean game of Scrabble with his foxy Grandma, right up to the month she died.”

It’s our first holiday season without our family matriarch, my colorful character of a mom, Naomi Elizabeth Evans Huffman Whyte, who left us on Earth Day in April. And I’m missing her.

If she were here right now, I know what she’d tell me: “Just be thankful we had so many good years together. After all, I was no spring chicken when I had you.”

And that’s true. She was 40. Mom called me her Bonus Baby and said I kept her young. Something sure kept her young. Her joy de vivre sparkled to the end. “She’s one of a kind,” various medical folk would tell me, after she got them laughing with her antics. This wasn’t news to me.

I’ve been sorting her things, poring over old letters, pictures and scraps of family lore our ancestors entrusted to her care (which oddly includes an 1870s claim to a defunct California goldmine. Some great-grandpa got scammed.) It feels strange to be the Keeper of the Stuff when you’ve always been the Baby of the Clan.

Mom’s favorite possessions had nothing to do with money and everything to do with connections to family members born across three centuries. Her beloved parents were born in the 1800s, her youngest great-grandchild in 2014.

There’s the hand-stitched Elizabeth quilt handed down through six generations of Elizabeths (Mom’s middle name, and mine, and my daughter Rebecca’s.) There’s her grandmother’s blue china teapot that family women have long gathered around in a crisis. The day Dad died, Mom said, “Let’s make a pot of tea.” I’d already put the kettle on the stove.

There’s the rocking chair she loved rocking us, and later our babies, to sleep in, and a fragile white christening gown, its tiny pleats hand-stitched by her favorite New York cousin in 1940. All five of us, and most of our babies, have worn it home from the hospital.

There are thousands of photographs, including one of Jane Addams speaking at Rockford College in 1925. Mom, age 4, attended with her parents. Such mementos remind me that she inhabited an American century and Rockford hometown very different from mine.

Mom was born here in 1921, the same year American women got the vote. She grew up in a southwest Rockford flat “when that part of town was beautiful.” Her grandpa built many sturdy brick two-story flats across Rockford, and her grandparents lived upstairs.

She loved roller-skating down School Street, but also loved it when her family moved to a local farm during the Great Depression. They paid Doc Miller, who owned the farm, with eggs and chickens.

After Mom and Dad (Hal Huffman) married in 1940, they built their home in a wide-open field “in the middle of nowhere,” now Loves Park. They sat on the stoop of that home and held my eldest brother close, watching military planes fly west after Pearl Harbor was bombed. What kind of world would their baby live in, they wondered?

By the late 1960s, Mom was rearing five children, helping my dad to run his business, tending to an ever-expanding home, caring for aging parents, volunteering for church and school functions and trying to make sense of a world that seemed to change from “Lawrence Welk” to “Laugh-In” overnight.

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, she enrolled at newly opened Rock Valley College at age 46. In time, she earned a master’s in teaching from Rockford College and fell into a wonderful late-life career teaching English at Harlem High School. All her life, she told all who would listen to her, about the difference those two colleges made in her life. She always joked that a book about her life would be titled “I Do Things Late.”

I attended Harlem during some of the years she taught, so my friends and I spent many hours in her classroom after school, chatting about world events, literature, poetry. Mom enjoyed teenagers and got them to voice their opinions; they loved her because she treated them with respect.

Whether she was a bigger fan of William Shakespeare, Robert Frost or Thomas Jefferson, I could not tell you. I can tell you she famously dumped a glass of water over the head of a student who had pushed her limits. “It didn’t hurt him,” she grumbled. OK, that wasn’t so respectful. She was complicated.

When Harlem teachers struck, mom crossed the picket line and lost some friends. She simply felt that her salary was a fair one.

We’ve always joked that Mom was born lucky. She was smart, pretty, healthy and much loved. She always came home from the church bazaar or card club with the grand prize, or at least the booby prize. But she also took nothing for granted, worked hard, used common sense and showed up for life with a smile.

After 50-plus good years of marriage to our dad, she wasn’t afraid to begin a new life with an old love – the Rev. Elmer Whyte, who had located my dad’s obituary on the Internet from Ohio and lost no time tracking her down. Their late-life romance was spectacular.

Along with enough canned goods to feed the world, Mom left us with bits of wisdom that served her well. Here are some of them.

The world is wondrous.
If you ever doubt God’s goodness, hold a newborn infant, look inside a tulip on a sunny day, watch a bird or a sunset, take a walk.

Be thankful. Someone always has it much worse than you do. If you have a full tummy, a warm bed and people who love you, you’re rich. If you’re also healthy and safe, how can you complain?

Parenting is primo. If you’re going to bring children into the world (and you should!) then be there for them – always. Don’t stop paying attention when they become teenagers, either. Have fun with them and laugh a lot together.

Be kind. To strangers on a plane, crabby old ladies, even surly teenagers. You don’t know what they’re going through. Maybe they’re doing their level best just to get through the day.

Be wary of money and those who love it too much. Earn, save, be responsible, spend only what you can afford. But never let money run you, and, for Pete’s sake, don’t lose family or friends over it.

Be curious. Don’t tell me, “I’m bored!” There are always new things/places/people/talents to discover. Remember Juanita. (Mom’s close friend Juanita Weatherbee didn’t discover she was an artist until after her 50th birthday.)

Think the best of people. Most people are basically good and want to do right by their families. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Life’s not fair, so just deal with it. Make sure you treat people fairly. Crying in your beer won’t help.

Do your part. Admire Scarlett O’Hara (“Gone With the Wind”), not Daisy Buchanan (“The Great Gatsby”). Sure, Scarlett was a selfish mess, but when disaster struck, she rose to the occasion. She had spunk.

Sleep well. Tell God each night, “I’m turning it all over to You, Lord,” and go right to sleep. Most of what we worry about never happens anyway.

Love your country. Always vote. Don’t listen to fearmongers and hatemongers. (Mom despised Fox News. “Why are they always so angry?” she’d ask me.)

Put on your lipstick. Even if you don’t feel like making the effort.

Scrub your sink each night. Change your sheets each week and make your bed each morning. When you keep your own world tidy, you cope better with the world’s messes.

Get outside yourself. Read, volunteer, take a class, be part of something. Most of us dwell on ourselves too much.

Keep an open mind. None of us is perfect, not even thee and me. Tolerate differences. Argue issues all you want, but then get out the Scrabble board and play a game. Loving each other is much more important than “being right.” If you don’t believe me on that, read the Bible.

Choose to be happy. It’s rare that every part of your life is going well at the same time. Be happy anyway. They say women can’t have it all. I think they can. They just can’t have it all at once.

If it’s free, take it. (This applied to salt and pepper packets, little jams and jellies, silverware from the airline, and those bank giveaways you get for opening checking accounts.) This related to another value: Don’t be wasteful. So what if the expiration date is past?

Prioritize. “Your dad and I were never rich, but we put five kids through college without debt and traveled to all 50 states and several countries. In earlier years, that meant never eating in restaurants and always staying in campgrounds, not hotels. We didn’t use credit cards. Travel was important to us, so we found a way. Make what you love a priority. Figure it out. And never, ever give up.”

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