In the almost two years I have been writing this column, I have interviewed many parents striving to teach their children the importance of helping others. They especially know the plight of others might go unnoticed while their children grow up in the seemingly land of plenty of Naperville.
When my family moved to Naperville in 1974, we could see Nabisco from the back windows of our recently built house in Brush Hill II. The town was a place of 20,000 that my parents chose because of the schools and so my dad could have a nice piece of property to garden. It’s a far cry from the city it is today, the one that my mom left behind when she died unexpectedly March 24.
And it wasn’t until after my mom died that I began reflecting on her life, and I saw how much she gave back in her 76 years.
I think of her as the quintessential Naperville mom: most didn’t work then and life didn’t move as quickly as it does now. Our moms weren’t burdened by the constant activities of children these days or cellphones in hand.
Mom made parenting look easy. I often joke that she coped with the chaos of four kids by burying herself in one of her many Harlequin romances. That was her escape. When we questioned her sanity about having four children, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “You kids were easy.”
But she also spent her time helping out where she could. The more time I spend thinking about it, the longer the list grows: she taught my older brother and sister’s CCD classes for Ss. Peter and Paul Church in our dining room; she volunteered for the clothing exchanges at Naper School, while also playing the piano for the Christmas programs and putting together the school newsletter.
She had once been a teacher and loved to sit behind her typewriter: she designed the Brush Hill II newsletter “Brushfire,” and when I was at Washington Junior High, typed up the Washington Whirl newspaper. None of this was easy then: there were constant bottles of correction fluid because she was a perfectionist and because there was no deleting with the swipe of a button. The newspaper was especially perilous as the words had to align on the right to create the “justified right” look. That meant the spaces had to be counted to look just right.
She even did some Braille translation once, a Braille machine taking the place of the typewriter at the dining room table. And she helped a local Asian woman as an English as a second language tutor.
Later there was the volunteer job at Nichols Library, and when we became a family of dogs, the ADOPT yearly walk with my older sister Karen.
While I always thought of giving back as volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating one’s time at a domestic violence shelter, my mom’s idea of giving back was to use her skills in ways she could challenge herself, be creative and help someone else. My mom showed me that if you used the skills you have, you’re doing something you enjoy and filling a need.
But there is one statement she made that altered my life in many ways. When my younger sister Denise ended her life in March 1993, it was Mom who made it clear we were not to keep our story private.
“We couldn’t help her but maybe we can help someone else,” she said.
I’m sure she didn’t expect me to write books or travel the world speaking about suicide loss and prevention. Yet in her own way, she taught me to help others and use my writing and speaking skills in ways that would never seem like giving back to me.
Michelle Linn-Gust is a native of Naperville. Read more about her at www.inspirebymichelle.com. Email her at email@example.com.