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JP Grace: House echoes family hubbub of years past

Jul. 15, 2013 @ 11:05 PM

CHICAGO, Ill. -- The house in the Norwood Park area of Chicago sits empty in the summer heat -- a brown brick Georgian with a bay window and a fenced yard. Beds are made up and towels are put out in all three bathrooms.

Family, in other words, can drop in at the far northwest side roost, but Gene S., mater familias extraordinaire, has blown the scene.

Her presence lingers in the "I Believe" decal on the front door, in the prayers and homey aphorisms scotch taped to the refrigerator or emblazoned on wall plaques.

"Each day is a gift from God." "For God so loved the world...", the salvation verse from John 3:15 promising eternal life to those who believe in God's only begotten son. A coffee mug bearing the counsel: "Start each day with a hug."

As could many of you reading this, I can sit quietly in such a house and hear it ringing with holiday talk and choruses, with blessings before meals, and also the contrarian sounds of conflict and reproach.

Family, don't you know? Things are not always peaches and cream.

Gene S., my late wonderful mother-in-law, could be sweet as cherry pie or, on occasion, someone who could blister you with her low regard for your latest financial or social misstep.

She was good to make up, though. I took my share of her criticisms, along with my wife, Paula, and her two brothers and three sisters, and their spouses. But I never felt she was carrying a grudge.

Besides which, as the mug suggested, Gene was always ready with a hug. Or a peck on the cheek.

I especially appreciated her custom of tracing a cross on your forehead, at parting, as a blessing for safe travel and Godly behavior.

That gesture goes straight back to the early Christians and is something we should consider reviving.

Following a marriage of 53 years, Gene spent a decade in widowhood after my father-in-law, Bill S., succumbed to a series of strokes. For a while, she shared her Norwood Park home with her sister, Helen, but when Helen died, Gene soldiered on by herself.

Growing weak in her mid 80s, she came to need a live-in caregiver. It took several tries before the family found someone who could cope with Gene's cantankerous side.

While in rehab from a fall, she died April 20 of this year, three weeks shy of her 88th birthday.

I miss her deeply as I sit writing this piece on her kitchen table.

John Patrick Grace spent 18 years as Gene S.'s son-in-law. Grace, a native of Chicago, now is a book editor and publisher based in downtown Huntington. He also teaches the Life Writing Class.

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