23 Aug 2014
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A Tribute to My Mom: Mary Ann Nagel

The following is a recap of mom's memorial service. But it's also an invitation to post your heartfelt memorials on Geneva Patch.

A Tribute to My Mom: Mary Ann Nagel A Tribute to My Mom: Mary Ann Nagel
  • Editor's note: The following is a tribute to my mom, presented Saturday at her memorial service at the United Methodist Church of Geneva. It also is an invitation to post your obituaries on Patch and to add your eulogies, as well. Simply log in, hover the cursor over "Announcements" and post your words and photos directly onto Geneva Patch. Send me a followup email, or give me a call, and I'll be sure to post it on the home page. I've always felt that an obituary can be more than the simple boilerplate that we see so often in newspapers and on funeral home websites. A life is so much more than date of birth, date of death and who that person is "proceeded by" and "survived by," and I hope that by sharing this memorial to my mom, that others will post stories of their loved ones, as well.



Before I get too far into this, I want to make sure to thank all the people at The Holmstad, and and the and and all our friends and relatives who have been so kind to mom and continue to be so kind to dad and all the family. We live in a caring community, and you’ve made a difficult time as easy as it possibly could be, and we are so very grateful to you all.


A Tribute to Mary Ann Nagel

When we moved mom to hospice a week ago Friday, my brother, Jon, and I realized that we had a tee-off time Saturday at The Highlands, and we wondered aloud whether we should cancel. And—cads that we are—we decided to play, because we knew that “Mom Would Want Us To.”

And it’s true. We didn’t actually ask her, but if we had, I can tell you exactly what mom would have said: “Don’t worry about me—you boys go and have a good time.”

And that’s our mom, in a nutshell. She cared more about her family than herself. She wanted us to enjoy life, and have fun, and she wanted us to be safe and happy.


*  *  *


Near the end, she said to my sister, Tinya, “Don’t be sad after I’m gone.” Well, sorry, mom. This is one of the few times when we can’t completely oblige.


*  *  *


In the end, of course, mom is right, as usual. There isn’t any reason to be sad. She had a wonderful life, as they say.

Today, we’re here to celebrate the life of Mary Ann Nagel, the woman we called “mother” and “grandma,” “wife” and “friend,” who lived up to those titles in everything she did.


*  *  *


Please indulge me as I share some random sensory images that I associate with mom.

Blueberry cheesecake. Marble cake. Homemade chocolate fudge. Apple pie, pumpkin pie, rhubarb pie, blueberry pie, banana crème pie, coconut crème pie, lemon meringue pie.

Strawberry meringues.

Sally Cake.

Angel-food cake, devil’s-food cake, strawberry shortcake. Spritzes, oatmeal cookies, those chocolate cookies with the walnut in the middle, ice box cookies, gingerbread cookies ... Chocolate chip cookies.


*  *  *


Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Turkey and mashed potatoes, Swedish rye bread and lingonberries, stuffing and oysters. “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Wonderful World of Color.”


*  *  *


Our mom loved to walk barefoot—all the time. She made her own advent calendar with little ornaments that went up on the tree—and somehow never lost a single one in all these years. She was aesthetically inclined, and would have made a good artist or aristocrat, I think. There was a nobility to her, and she loved the finer things in life: champagne, caviar, lobster tails, oysters Rockefeller … and cheeseburgers with mustard and onions.


*  *  *


She loved Geneva, IL, and stained glass windows, and .


*  *  *

Our mom loved to play games.

Word games and board games and jigsaw puzzles and two crossword puzzles, religiously, every Sunday. When I was a kid and we had family in town, mom always was my first recruit for a board game, because I knew she’d always say yes. In the last year or so, the highlight of her day was 3:30 p.m., when she’d treat herself to a glass of bourbon, some Pringles potato chips and “Jeopardy! With Alex Trebek.”

She loved bridge, and among the great joys in her life were her bridge club friends and partners. Couples’ bridge clubs, bridge with Dale and Donna Myers or Evelyn and Pete Grakunis (SP?), and more than a few afternoon bridge clubs with the ladies.

When I was an editor with The Geneva Republican in the 1980s and ‘90s, Mom’s bridge club was my litmus test. You didn’t need focus groups or demographic data to tell if you were doing a good job covering Geneva in those days. If my mom’s bridge club was talking about the story, I knew we were on the mark.


*  *  *


She was the world’s greatest Cubs fan.

Before the halcyon days of the late ‘60s, when the Cubs started to get good enough to break our hearts, there was a picture that ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. It was a cold, rainy, miserable opening day—and the photo is of row after row of empty seats … except for a smattering of hearty fans. And of course, right in the middle—there are mom and dad, huddled under blankets and an umbrella: Die-hard Cubs fans decades before the phrase was added to the lexicon of popular culture.


*  *  *


If you were to describe mom’s “profession,” it probably would have been “mother.”

She had many jobs during her lifetime, notably working for the phone company and later at The Little Traveler, and she took care of the Valley Typewriter Company business when she had to. But she grew up at a time when being a homemaker and a mom was a primary purpose—and she did it as well as anyone.

In her obituary, we described her as the “best mom ever,” and I’m sure that title is true for just about everyone who’s had a mom. But I got to tell you, she was really good at it.


*  *  *


In the eyes of Mary Ann Nagel, every one of her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were perfect. 

She loved spending time with her grandchildren, Jamie and Andrew, and to her, our kids were always, “My Kathryn,” and “My Tricia.”


*  *  *


Mom wasn’t necessarily a huggy, kissy type. 

She was a good, Swedish stoic. She rarely said “I love you” out loud, but she said it a thousand times a day in what she did. Like Wesley in “The Princess Bride,” she substituted “I love you” with “As You Wish.” Mom said “I love you” when she made you a sandwich, or when she baked 17 kinds of Christmas cookies, or when she doctored your skinned-up knee, or when you brought her a daisy, and she placed it in a vase in the center of the room, as if it were the greatest treasure in all the world.


*  *  *


Our mom was very brave.

She decided some time when she was in her 50s that, by God, she was going to learn how to drive. And stop smoking. And she did.

She had a terrific fear of flying. But when her daughter, Tinya, nearly died in childbirth in 1968, there was nothing on Earth that was going to stop her from being by Tinya’s side and nursing her back to health. So she got on a plane … and flew … by herself … to Argentina.  A half a day’s flight and then some.

And when Bob told Tinya that her mom was on the way, my sister—who was apparently on a lot of pain-killing drugs at the time—uttered the wonderful understatement that’s now a part of Nagel family lore: “Oh … I like her.”

Mom fought and beat cancer twice. The second time, around 1999, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She withstood the chemotherapy and lost her hair, but she came out of the ordeal cancer-free and had a very good quality of life until the very end. She died on Monday, Aug. 13, after a long, dry summer, on a day when Geneva was blessed with a steady, nurturing rain.


*  *  *


Curiously, perhaps, Mary Ann Nagel died on the same day as Helen Gurley Brown, who was just a year older than mom—and while both had lives well-lived, it would be hard to think of a greater contrast. One was the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and the author of “Sex and the Single Girl,” who categorized bachelors by their prospects—the other a homespun housewife who was married to the same, good man for more than seven decades and loved her kids more than life itself.


*  *  *


For some very strange reason, on the day mom died, I found myself remembering a time when I was a little boy and we were driving on vacation. It was late at night, and I must have been getting antsy. And mom decided to keep me entertained by rummaging through the detritus of her seemingly bottomless purse. Like a magician with a top hat, she reached in and pulled out a button about the size of a quarter. And I held it up to the street lights, and it read, “I Am a Batman Crimefighter.” And so we came to learn mom’s secret life and alter ego. 

And for some reason, on that night, it just struck us as unbelievably funny. And we laughed and laughed, until our sides hurt and tears came to our eyes.


*  *  * 


How do you measure a life?

Our mom didn’t find a cure for cancer, and she didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, she didn’t have a career resume with a litany of bullet-point accomplishments, and she wasn’t famous like Helen Gurley Brown.

But if you measure life by how much you love, and how much you are loved by others, then—unlike her beloved Chicago Cubs—Mary Ann Nagel led the league. 

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