Around The Rim Country

Thanksgiving without 'Mom'


Life isn't always funny. One of my best friends since I moved to the Rim country four years ago was a lady named Lillian Heyen. She was what you might consider a feisty old broad.

But Lillian wouldn't be offended if you called her that to her face. In fact, she'd take it as a real compliment.

Lillian lived a few houses away from us. She and her husband Raymond had moved to the Rim country some 18 years ago to retire. Their dream was to spend their golden years tooling around the country on matching Harleys.

But then Raymond got sick, and Lillian ended up spending the next dozen or so years taking care of him. He finally died a couple years ago.

By then Lillian had developed some health problems of her own. Finally free of a burden she never complained about, she now had to start taking care of herself.

Until recently, Lillian took daily walks around the neighborhood, and that's how we originally met. When we'd run into each other, I'd say, "Lillian, how ya doin'?" and she'd always respond, "Anybody I can, and the cute ones twice."

As we got to know her better, we'd give her our morning newspaper after we had read it, or take her to the grocery store with us, or pick up something she might need in town.

When I was elected president of our community center, Lillian joined me on the board. If there was one vote I could always count on, it was hers.

We came to call her "mom," and she called us her kids. Her real kids lived in the Valley, and our parents were either dead or back in Michigan, so it worked out real handy for everybody concerned.

Some of you will remember Lillian from an article I wrote a couple years ago when I was doing one of the Roundup's community columns. Lillian's mother back in Missouri was turning 100, and the whole family was getting together for a big birthday party.

Lillian thought it would be neat if people from the Rim country would send her mother birthday cards. Some 200 of you did.

That gesture by so many people she didn't even know made her happier than I had ever seen her. The party was a big success, and Lillian talked about it for months.

"Mother was in rare form," she said. "Whenever I walked up to her she would point her finger at me and say, 'You ornery kid, you.'"

Her mother still lived in the same house the family had moved into when Lillian was just two, and the visit seemed to trigger a host of childhood memories, including a Christmas during the Great Depression.

"It had been a real lean year, and in my stocking was an orange and some lumps of coal," she recalled. "That was a joke, because underneath them was a round tin box filled with embroidery materials, floss, needles and scissors," she recalled. "It wasn't much, but it turned out to be the best present I ever got because my grandmother taught me to embroider."

Lillian was a diabetic, and over the last year her health began to slip. Things would get out of balance and either we or our community fire department would take her into the emergency room.

They'd usually admit her, keep her for a few days until they could get her stabilized, and then we'd go pick her up, stop and get her some groceries, and take her home.

That must have happened eight or 10 times.

The other night, we tried to call her for about an hour, but her line was busy. We figured she was talking to her sister and went to bed.

We were wrong.

One of her daughters had tried to get ahold of her for several hours, and finally called the sheriff's office. They came out and found her on the floor, the phone off the hook.

As you've probably guessed by now, Lillian didn't come home this time. She died at PRMC the following day.

A year ago, we had my family out for Thanksgiving. My own mother had just died a few months before, and it was our first Thanksgiving without her.

We asked Lillian to join us, and it was like having a mother there after all. Instead of an empty place at the table there was this feisty old broad who had become our mom-away-from-mom.

Despite our loss, Lillian helped us make it a happy event.

Now it's Thanksgiving time again, and this year there will be nobody to take her place at the table.

But rather than mourn her passing or regret the fact that we didn't do more for her or with her, I am going to try to be thankful for what she brought into our lives.

I am going to try to be thankful for having the opportunity to be her neighbor and friend for four years.

I am going to try to be thankful for the spirit and courage she demonstrated.

It won't be easy, just as it's not easy writing this. But it's really true that we can look at life as a glass that's half full or half empty.

That's what Lillian was all about, and that's what Thanksgiving is all about.

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