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West Side Stories

A Tosa resident for almost 20 years, Karen is a mom and freelance writer, addicted to playing tennis. When not on the tennis court, she spends the fall and winter in the stands at Green Bay Packer and Marquette basketball games.

Karen is the author of “Grab a Bite,” a dining out column and the former community columnist for the Wauwatosa NOW newspaper.

The New Girl - My Mom, The Newest Tosa Resident

Tosans, Parenting, Family, Elder Care

Dear Tosa,

Please love my Mom. I shouldn’t even have to ask, but I really care about her. You see, this week, she officially becomes a resident of Wauwatosa. For the past two years, her life has been turned upside down. She’s been moved and rerouted and generally upended. So, at the age of 83, she’s starting over…again. Let me tell you a bit about her.

Her name is Loretta, although some in her family call her “Lola.” She stands about 4’ 10” tall. Her parents, Rose and Stanley (Stosh), immigrated from Poland to Chicago, where she grew up. She went to Catholic schools and dreamed of going to college, something that never came true. And yet, she persevered.

Mom met my Dad, Ken, at the Cadillac dealership. She worked in the office and he was a mechanic. He saw her, thought she was cute, and playfully tried to run her over as she walked through the garage. They married in 1952 with no money and big dreams.

Like so many at that time, Dad enlisted in the army. He became a helicopter pilot during the Korean War. He was stationed in Germany. (“I was no dummy,” he said. “They were shooting people in Korea.”) When he came home, he took advantage of the GI Bill and went to art school at the Art Institute of Chicago. While Dad soldiered and studied and drew, Mom stayed in Chicago and supported them with various jobs – working in an office, folding diapers at a diaper company.

To make a long story short, Dad went into commercial art and had a long and successful career. Meanwhile, Mom stayed home and took care of the family - first my brother Jeff, in 1957, me in 1960, my sister Lisa in 1963 and my sister Jodi in 1973. To fulfill a promise made at the altar, we were sent to Catholic schools.

My Mom’s life, like many, didn’t go exactly as planned. In 1965, Lisa was diagnosed with Leukemia. Somehow, Mom managed to take care of us, while shuttling back and forth between home and the hospital. In 1968, Lisa died. To put it mildly, our family was crushed. My brother and I were reeling. My Dad retreated into work. And Mom tried, valiantly, to soldier on, with very little support. And yet, somehow, she survived.

Five years later, my sister Jodi came along – a ray of sunshine in a battered and bruised family. Mom’s job as a homemaker was reignited. At the age of 42, she was, once again, pushing a baby stroller. She chuckled at people who would see them together and ask about her “granddaughter.” She sewed, she cooked, she supported my Dad who still spent a great deal of time at work when he wasn’t racing amateur sports cars, a hobby that enveloped the entire family.

My siblings and I went to college, married and had kids. Mom waited patiently for us to visit or call (which we never did enough) so she could hear about us and our families. She was our biggest cheerleader.

To put it mildly, Mom put many of her own interests and hobbies on the back burner. Here’s what you need to know about Mom: She tends to put everyone else’s needs, concerns and worries before her own.

Fast forward to 2012. Mom and Dad are living in Glenview, IL, but Dad’s health is failing. Despite near-blindness due to macular degeneration, Mom is keeping the two of them afloat. Yet, it wasn’t enough. In April, we moved my parents to our house for three months and then to South Milwaukee to an assisted living facility.

Once again, my parents were starting over. For about 9 months, they had a new normal. Like many their age, my parents probably looked at each other and thought: “How the hell did we end up here?” And yet, they kept a stiff upper lip.

In May of 2013, Dad’s health deteriorated to the point that he had to be moved to a nursing home. Mom tried valiantly to visit him often and care for him as much as she could. In January of 2014, Mom and I were by his bedside when he took his final breath.

Suddenly, after 61 years of marriage, Mom was a widow. She was broken and yet she somehow found the strength to work through it. Now it was time for her to put her own needs first. At her assisted living facility, she became fairly social. She joined in activities – played bingo, did zumba and tai chi, played cards (with a little help, since she could barely see) and became very popular. How do I know she was popular? Because virtually everyone at the facility came to her farewell party. In fact, some residents and staff were in tears. I was incredibly touched to see how well my Mom was loved. In her quiet and kind little way, she touched many lives.

Now, she’ll be in a new place (Hart Park Square,) with new “neighbors” and new hallways and floors to navigate. I won’t kid you, she’s really nervous. Like a teenager on the first day of high school, she’s scared – to meet new people, to sit at the right table at meals, to follow the new "rules," to feel accepted and loved. I’ll be just minutes away now, which is awesome, but she’d like to find her own friends and feel independent. It’s something we all want, no matter how old we are.

Being the New Girl is hard, so please be nice to my Mom. I know you’ll like her. She’s quick to laugh, is a great listener and is more kind than I could ever hope to be. She loves listening to books (because she can no longer read), “seeing” movies, hearing good jokes and stories and hanging out with fun people. Please fill her life with that, Tosa. Show her the Tosa that I've known and loved for almost 25 years. I'll take her to my favorite places - Le Reve, Cafe Bavaria, Leff's Luckytown, Balistreri's, Colectivo, Hui's, John's,  The Farmer's Market, The Wauwatosa Library, Sentry, Sendik's, Hector's, Bartolotta's - the list could go on and on. I'll drive her around, but I need you to embrace her. Because, like my Mom probably felt when I went away to school, I won't be happy unless she's happy. I'm sure you'll understand.

Thanks so much. 

Sincerely,

Karen

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