By Lynn Venhaus

“To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” –Thomas Campbell.

On this day 23 years ago, we said our final goodbye to our mother, who was three weeks from turning 71.

I know you flew on angels’ wings, Mom, and I know you made your mark on Earth – Rosemary Zierrath Zipfel, July 28, 1930 – July 7, 2001, while you were here. I hope to always be reminded of your sunny optimism in the face of great adversity

To watch someone die from lung cancer is a horrible thing, and we had been with her at Barnes for a month. We knew we had to let go, she wasn’t ever coming back to be that sweet, smiling, devoted woman who had an incredible heart and work ethic, who sacrificed a lot for her five children.

And with Julie, Mike, Matt, Mary Clare and I in the room, she opened her eyes, smiled at us, and died.

She had been unresponsive for days, and on July 4, the chaplain said gather your family. So we scrambled to get that in motion while all around us were fireworks and celebrations.

Losing anyone is tough, but losing your anchor, your rock, your family center, is a very tough transition.

They called her age group the Greatest Generation. And she was! Rosie the Riveter in the flesh. She was born on the hottest day of 1930 during the Great Depression, the firstborn daughter of Lorraine C. and Eleanor Taylor Zierrath in East St. Louis, Ill. It was 108 degrees.

Mom, expecting Julie, flanked by her parents, sister Judy and princess me, in Indiana 1957.

Among her greatest attributes, besides being a devoted big sister to brother Charlie and sister Judy, was her belief that family was everything. She was there for everybody. She never knew a stranger.

I was born after my parents’ biggest heartbreak, their first baby, a daughter Claire, died three days after birth in Kodiak, Alaska. My dad was stationed there in the U.S. Navy, Mom said they never even saw her — doctor said it was for the best. She was born with a tumor on her spine. Can you imagine, being 22-23 years old, losing your child, and being so far away from your loved ones? This was 1953.

When my dad was discharged, they moved back to where their parents lived, in Belleville, Ill. Due to my dad’s business work, we moved around soon after I was born in 1954, to Nashville, Tenn., Muskegon, Mich., Richmond, Ind., and Dayton, Ohio, all before I was 5. Julie and Mike were born in Indiana. Matt and Mary Clare would arrive after we moved back to Belleville in 1960.

My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, and we moved in with my maternal grandparents. Rose was a single mom when that was scarce, especially in a Catholic family. What courage! Besides helping take care of my siblings, I withdrew into books, movies and music — they became my salvation.

The Zipfel kids with Mom — Mike, Mary, Mom, Julie, Lynn and Matt, 1985.

I am sure as a nerdy bookworm growing up I exasperated her – I know I did. She was always trying to get me outside when I just wanted to finish my Nancy Drew book after a quick bike ride. My brothers spent their summer days on a neighbor’s sandlot while we girls helped with chores. She signed me up for two weeks at a stay-over summer camp in the Shawnee National Forest, without asking, and all three times were disasters. (You think I exaggerate? Family lore insists not).

And then I was this awkward, overly dramatic teenager who found my tribe going to speech meets and play practice while everyone else in the fam was playing on sports teams. She accepted me when I know she didn’t understand me, her oldest that she relied on to help with her four other kids.

But she was the one who guided me into journalism. She thought that best suited my skills, and told my teacher. “Your Mom says you want to be a journalist,” the nun told me. I was 13, it was 1968, and the world was literally on fire – upheaval and cataclysmic events. That is when I discovered my nose for news. That was my direction. Thanks, Mom.

Without my Mom’s encouragement, it wouldn’t have sparked an interest so early. That was a male-dominated field, and she was nonplussed ” “You can do it.”

I have written about her many, many times – her bravery, her compassion, her thoughtfulness, and her resilience.

And she firmly believed we girls could do anything we put our minds to. You want to go to college? We will make that happen. I was the first person to graduate from college in my family. All of my siblings earned degrees, with her support.

So supportive to everyone, she always made you feel better. It would have been easy to listen to naysayers, and take no for an answer, but that was not Rose. She didn’t give up until she was forced to, and she would not let that defeat her. There were times when I am sure she wanted to throw a pity party for herself, but she just kept going.

We lost a lot that Saturday 23 years ago. But we gained perspective on what it means to have had a spectacular role model, how to live an exemplary life, and that you can indeed live on in the hearts you leave behind.

Mom with grandsons Tommy Davis, Charlie Venhaus and Tim Venhaus, circa 1990.

Lord, I miss her laugh.

I miss picking up the phone and saying hey.

I miss celebrating special occasions with her.

I miss asking her advice. “How do you get past heartache and setbacks and overcoming self-doubts and trauma?”

I can still hear her soothing words ringing in my head. And yes, most of the time she was right! Moms always know the right thing to say.

She was nice and polite — but she was tough as nails. Do not dismiss or condescend or patronize. Test her at your peril.

She summoned the strength of suffragettes, and the wisdom of someone who learned from all the hard knocks that tried to take her down, and to survive and thrive against all odds. The world seems to want to beat you down, but she would rather help people up and they helped her.

To watch her in motion was to marvel at her abilities – How she kept finding joy in the small pleasures of life, and how she never stopped.

She always found something to smile about, and I will never forget that, Mom.

Daughters Lynn, Julie and Mary, with Mom, at Mary’s bridal shower in 1987.

She loved movies. My fondest childhood memories are staying up late with her on Saturday nights and watching classic black-and-white films.

She let me stay up to watch the Oscars in 1963. I was 8. It was on Monday nights back then. She never missed this telecast. Of course I fell asleep before it was over but I remember how glamorous it all was, and Gregory Peck winning for To Kill a Mockingbird. There must have been a commercial for Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” which came out around then, because I remember being terrified when I saw the school kids running and birds attacking them!

Here’s to you, Mom, for sharing your love of the cinema with me and taking us to the Skyview Drive-In on warm summer nights – because with 5 kids, that’s how we could afford movies in those days!

Perhaps her greatest legacy was her sense of family. She believed that we were mightier together, and forged a strong bond so that we could tackle our struggles together, and enjoy each other. Not that we were the model of one big happy family because, like all families, there were rough patches. But, she allowed us to be individuals and appreciated our differences. Nevertheless, we were one for all and all for one. Family First.

Anyone who was ever at our house growing up — 9 people in a tiny frame house on Belleville’s west end — knows how boisterous and lively the place was.

Mom and BFF Donna Finch.

She loved to grab her coffee and cigarettes, and shoot the breeze. She and her best bud Donna Finch, a neighbor, would sit on the screened-in porch and call it the best Saturday night.

Love and miss you always. I know I stand on the shoulders of giants, you and grandma included.

I hope my knuckle-headed brothers and my Timmy are good company for you in “The Good Place.” And Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Charlie and Aunt Shirley are telling funny stories.

Your memory will continue to bless us all. Thank you for being such an unforgettable spirit. You live in all of us.

Mom, holding Julie and pregnant with Mike, and her mom, aka “Mims,” and me.

Cover photo: Mom, center, with some teenage friends.

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