Finding a way to honor thy mother
Whether it's a personalized license plate, a flower garden, or even a tattoo, many people find their own personal way to memorialize mom

May 13, 2007

Even after the breast cancer had spread to her brain and spine, Toni Lee never expected her mother to die.

She was completely taken by surprise when her aunts tracked her down between college classes and part-time jobs to tell her that her 41-year-old mother had passed away.

"I was devastated," recalled Toni, a Richton Park resident.

An only child, Toni, then 21, struggled to find a way to memorialize the woman who had been her best friend and her lifelong support system.

"My mom and I were complete opposites. She was a girlie girl who liked to wear dresses and heels and go shopping. I was a tomboy," Toni said.

When Toni was a child, her mother, Emma Lee, worked as an office manager on the pediatrics floor of Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago.

"She was always surrounded by kids," Toni said. "And when I'd visit someone would ask, 'Who's that?' and people would say, 'Oh, that's Emma's kid, Chree (Toni's middle name).'"

Soon, more people came to know Toni as Emma's kid. The nickname came in handy at family functions, especially her mother's funeral.

"I'd introduce myself as Emma's kid and it was instant recognition," she said.

Today, Toni drives around with EMASKID on her license plates.

"I want people to ask me about it, about her," she says. "My mother was a wonderful person. We filled in each other's voids. We complemented each other."

It took more than a decade for Toni to come up with a way to commemorate her mother in a unique and lasting fashion.

Her pursuit was hardly uncommon.

Many people who lose a loved one long for a way to keep that person's spirit alive and present.

Clare Larson, of Frankfort, wrote a poem, "Mom," to console her cousin's two daughters after their mother passed away earlier this year.

"A lovely bird has flown away,

"We'll see it again another day,

"But what a heritage she left behind,

"Something for all of us to keep in mind."

Gloria Yorke, of Homer Glen, wrote a touching tribute to her mother and to all mothers in honor of Mother's Day.

"My mother had a marvelous personality. She was always pleasant and smiling. She was the epitome of the last generation's stay-at-home mothers," Yorke said.

In her article titled, "A Tribute to Mother," Yorke writes:

"A mother's love is truly overflowing! Yes, even when we break her heart! She is quick to forgive and forget. When we are sad, she is sad. When we cry, she cries. Many times, the tears are hidden, so as not to alarm us, but she worries about our well-being more than we could ever imagine."

Another increasingly popular way to memorialize moms and other loved ones is through plants and trees.

"People buy trees for memorials all the time," said Mike Reihsmann, a grower at Saunoris and Bros. garden center in Frankfort. Memorial gardens, he said, tend to be planted by groups on a deceased's behalf.

Although closure has become a buzz word for our generation, Renee Wood, owner of Geneva, Ill.-based The Comfort Co., believes that closing the door on a person's life is not helpful in the grieving process.

"There is no closure when someone dies. There is just a new reality. People don't want to forget about their loved one. They want acknowledgment of their loss," said Wood, a former social worker who worked in the grief arena for 18 years.

Six years ago, she started her online company after she couldn't find an appropriate sympathy gift to give her sister-in-law, whose father had just died.

The Comfort Co. sells pendant jewelry, personalized garden stones and engraved rocks and benches, among other items.

"Mother's Day is our second busiest holiday," Wood said.

This year, it shipped some 1,200 gifts during the past week. About one-third of those went to people who'd recently lost their mothers.

Sometimes, following a mother's illness or a particularly challenging time, sons and daughters acknowledge Mom's love and strength while she is still alive.

After his mother survived cancer for the second time, Bob Wermes, a construction supervisor from Chicago's Southwest Side, had a rose tattoo put on his upper arm. And then, following his mom's third bout with the deadly disease, he had another tattoo, a black panther surrounded by orange flames, put on his lower arm.

After her mother endured seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Chantal Vestuto Langford, of Justice, knew she had to do something to commemorate the woman's incredible strength and perseverance.

Years earlier, Langford's father had passed away from colon cancer. He left his wife and only child penniless and up to their ears in back taxes and mortgage debt, including a mortgage on his girlfriend's home.

"My mother didn't even know how to drive at the time," Langford said. "She'd been a homemaker for 35 years. She didn't know finances, she didn't work."

Faced with homelessness, Joan Vestuto began to dig herself out, her daughter recalled.

She sold the family home weeks before the bank was set to foreclose. She got a job as a temporary worker, making $6 an hour and she worked as many hours and days as she could.

"Where was I during all this?" Langford said. "I suppose I was grieving in my own way. I let my mother bear the burden of all this. Yet she never complained about all the crosses she had to carry."

Langford was 19 at the time and sought solace in her friends. She left her mother to handle things on her own.

"I ignored the whole situation," she said.

After years of scratching, Langford said, her mother put the two of them back on their feet, buying a small home in Darien and paying off all of the debt.

"That's when she found out she had endometrial cancer," Langford said. "She had been bleeding for a whole year and never went to the doctor because she didn't have the time or the money."

But Joan Vestuto would survive yet again, emerging victorious in yet another fight for her life.

"Throughout the ordeal, every now and then, we would drive to the arboretum and stop to admire this willow tree," Langford said.

So, after her mother learned her cancer was in remission, Langford bought some lilies and she and her mother drove out to the willow tree. There, they planted the flowers.

"The branches on the tree remind me of my mother's compassion and understanding, of how she protected me from all this turmoil," Langford said.

The small flower garden represents the end of one chapter in the women's lives and the beginning of another.

"Today, my mother is a different person. She's 73 and she has friends and confidence and independence," Langford said.

"I've learned so much from her. To be strong, to be humble and to never take things for granted.

"Today, my mother and I have a new relationship. She's more of a friend and a confidant."

Donna Vickroy