My 86 year old mother, Irene Kerwin, died on Friday. Pneumonia was the coup de grace and bipolar disorder paved the way. The last 14 years were interrupted by long periods of chaos and deep despair, but thankfully the preceding years were normal and some might say unremarkable. Mom lived a quiet life of family, good deeds, and kindness – not unlike many people of her generation and background. This is a brief portrait of mom and her life, an attempt to go beyond a dry obituary and pay tribute to her and others like her whose lives might otherwise go unnoticed.
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Mom was born August 18, 1933 on her grandparent’s farm in the town of Cleveland, WI. Albert and Anna (Popp) Nahring’s house was perched atop 20 acres with their sawmill down the hill by the creek. Albert ran the sawmill, was the town chairman, and served on the Marathon county board. They had 8 children. Theodore was the youngest and he married Marie (Fuchs) who grew up 1 town over. Mom was their first child and shortly after her birth the young family moved to Milwaukee. When her grandfather died she was sent back at age 5 to keep her grandmother company. Those were happy years. Besides the barn with a hayloft, the farm had cows, geese, cats and dogs, a creek with fish and frogs, and ruins of the sawmill to play on. It was a childhood paradise (we visited the farm many times when I was young).
At 9 mom rejoined her parents and 3 younger brothers in their 1 bedroom apartment on Brady Street. According to my mom and uncle it was a difficult time; they didn’t have much and it got worse when her parents divorced. Mom helped look after her younger brothers, continued to do well in school, and graduated from Milwaukee’s Lincoln HS.
At 16 mom met the love of her life, Robert Kerwin, an Air Force Sergeant and a friend of a neighbor. At first she refused to go out with him; he was 8 years older and she felt too young, but 5 years later they married. As they moved from base to base the family grew. Eventually my dad left the Air Force, they settled in Milwaukee and the next 20 years were spent raising me and my 3 siblings: Pat, Tom, and Sue. Mom bought us books, took us to swimming lessons, encouraged our interest in music, and pushed Tom and me to be altar boys.
Born in the depression and shaped by poverty, mom knew how to stretch a dollar. Patches were sewn, clothes handed down, ads studied, coupons clipped. The mail regularly brought dollars in exchange for boxtops sent in. To buy groceries mom walked with us to that day’s store and carried home a bag in each arm.
While family was mom’s reason for being, helping others was also important. The kids were sent with bags of apples and plums gathered from our trees for neighbors. Later it was garden tomatoes and cucumbers. Later yet, mom clipped coupons and gave them to the assisted living staff. Mom was active in the local PTA and church, made small donations to the needy (no shortage of calendars at our house), and helped raise 2 of her grandchildren.
After the children were grown she worked for many years in Kohl’s housewares dept and developed lifelong friendships. She cherished her garden and home of 54 years, and was proud of living independently for 27 years after her husband died.
Mom was fascinated by numbers and had a great memory, especially for names, birthdays, anniversaries, and important dates. These things were so important I once found her reciting birthdays to make sure she could still remember them.
Mom also had surprising strength. Under her kind and gentle exterior lay an iron will and she fought with steely determination against the infirmities of age. Even in her final hours she was alert and in control asking for the oxygen to be shut off before peacefully passing. Her last words aptly summed up her life’s creed, “I want what is good for me and my family.”
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The night mom died I had a vivid dream. I was returning to a study area I hadn’t used in some time, like a place provided for me in medical school. Someone had moved all my old textbooks, in fact, I couldn’t find them at all. I was really upset and giving whoever I could find a hard time. I knew I didn’t need those books anymore, hadn’t looked at them in years, but still, they were mine and important to me. I woke up and realized it was a dream about my mom.
Why do I associate mom with books? First, you need to know she paid the bills, managed the money and decided what we could have. When I was in 1st and 2nd grade books could be purchased through the Weekly Reader. I always ordered more than anyone else in my class – I know because I kept track. I loved reading, but I thought it was so cool I could order that many books when there were strict limits on any other purchase. It helped feed my desire to read, and that led to greater academic success and ultimately career success. It’s something I’ve always remembered and appreciated.