My mother-in-law, Juanita Stephans, died on February 24, after 86 memorable years. It was my honor and privilege to write and deliver a eulogy at her funeral on March 2, and I am including the text below. If you weren’t lucky enough to know Juanita, I hope this brief remembrance will provide a glimpse into her life, loves, and legacy.
Juanita Stephans, 7/10/31 – 2/24/18
I assume you have already figured out that Juanita was my mother-in-law. Now, if all you know about mothers-in-law comes from comedians, sitcoms, or movies, I’m afraid you aren’t fully-informed. While there are undoubtedly some women who fit that description, Juanita Stephans was not one of them. You don’t have to just take my word for it. I’m sure Sam and Bill will agree.
In fact, I tried to think of a stereotypical mother-in-law story about Juanita and couldn’t come up with even one. So instead I would just like to offer some random memories about Juanita, who was so much more than a mother-in-law to me.
I do confess that as a young mother I did live in abject terror of Juanita stopping by unannounced. You see, she kept an immaculate home, while ours usually looked like someone had broken in and ransacked it. Eventually I realized that Juanita was there to see us — well, really the grand kids — and not there to judge my questionable housekeeping practices.
Juanita’s house wasn’t just neat and tidy, it was always beautifully appointed. But no matter how great the place looked, she didn’t like it to stay one way for very long. George always joked that he never argued with Juanita about redecorating, because if she didn’t redecorate, the only other option was moving!
In truth, though, he loved finding just the right piece of furniture or wall art as much as she did. True, it may have been a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” but nonetheless it was one of many fun things they enjoyed doing together. In fact, we used to call him “Georgio!” And thanks to Juanita’s penchant for redecorating, just about all our homes have had pieces from the George and Juanita Stephans Collection on display at one time or another.
Although in later years she would say that she’d rather dust her stove than use it, Juanita had grown from an inexperienced newlywed who could only make Spanish rice, to a great cook, even mastering all the Greek specialties George loved. Many years later, when I was making my first leg of lamb, I called Juanita, and she gave me step-by-step, insider instructions so it would turn out perfectly, which it did.
Obviously, being a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother (Yia Yia) were big parts of Juanita’s life, but she was much more than that. She had a 30-year career as a school secretary, and although she’s been retired for decades, people she worked with were in this very room last night, talking about what an important and invaluable part she played.
When she was a younger woman, she bowled; when she was an older woman, she joined the Red Hat Society.
Many years ago, I learned that Juanita had a teenage crush which had lasted into adulthood – and it wasn’t George! She was crazy about singer John Gary, and even still had some of his albums in her stereo console. (You kids can ask Alexa what those things are later.) I understood completely, because even at 60 years old, I still have a pretty big thing for Donny Osmond.
So I was thrilled to find out that John Gary was touring, and was going to be at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. I took Juanita, and both of us had a great time. I wish I could tell you about whether Juanita screamed or swooned or anything like that, but there is a solemn code of confidentiality among teenyboppers that even death cannot break.
I was also very surprised when Mike told me that he was probably around high school age before he knew exactly how old his mother was, because she would never tell her age. I don’t know if that says more about the attitudes of that generation’s women in the 60s and 70s, or about my husband’s deductive reasoning skills, but either way, I was stunned.
You’ve seen the pictures. In the 60s, Juanita was a knockout! She could have played Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. And in the half-century that followed, it’s hard to think of someone who aged more gracefully. Whether out on the town or sitting in her room at rehab, Juanita’s hair, clothing, and accessories always looked great.
Juanita wasn’t the only one to enjoy her impeccable wardrobe either. At many family gatherings the granddaughters would make a beeline for her closet, and emerge draped in her scarves, hats, jewelry and fur pieces. Not all grandmas would let kids play dress up with their finery, but I think Juanita enjoyed it as much as the girls did.
Looking around the room at three generations, it’s apparent that Juanita leaves quite a legacy. So before I get to my final thought, I must recognize one in particular.
Where I work, we often assist adult children dealing with a parent’s aging, incapacity, and death. Unfortunately, these situations often bring out the worst in people. But not so with Karen, Patti, and Mike.
Even before George died, and certainly in the years since, they have lovingly and unselfishly worked together to deal with whatever challenges have arisen, striving always to do what was best for their parents. They would say it’s just what you do when you’re a family. To which I say, yes, when you’re a family that was raised right by two extraordinary parents. Quite a legacy indeed.
A little over seven years ago my own mother was dying. She had been in a nursing home, but because of insurance, she had to either transfer to another nursing home, or go home. She chose the latter, and my brother and sister and I were very concerned about many things, including how our dad would be able to take care of her. When I expressed these concerns, Karen made a very astute observation: “They say there’s no place like home.”
She was right. My mom knew she only had a few months left, and she wanted to spend them at home. I think that Juanita wholeheartedly agreed.
Juanita had many medical episodes – some very serious – over the last few years, and we marveled at how she was able to bounce back from each of them. I think a big part of what motivated her, what made her work hard and follow doctor’s orders, was that she wanted to go home.
But there’s another saying about home that I think applies even more: “Home is where the heart is.” And for the last two and a half years, a small part of Juanita’s heart was in Romeoville, but the majority was in heaven, with George.
I also don’t think it was an accident that Juanita went home to George less than two weeks after Valentine’s Day. I always think of George and Juanita on Valentine’s Day. Not because of their incredibly long marriage, or their unconditional love for each other, or anything like that.
White Castle pulls out all the stops for Valentine’s Day – tablecloths, candles, decorations. You even have to make a reservation. And for several years before his death, this was an annual tradition for George and Juanita.
So after Juanita spent another Valentine’s Day — by my calculation only the third one in almost 70 years without George — it was time to go home.
As I imagine George in heaven, I see him strolling along the streets, much as if he were in Walt Disney World, stopping at each restaurant to read the menu in the window, and making a list of where to take Juanita to dinner.
But I’d like to think that last Saturday night, when George met her at the pearly gates, they bypassed the fancy places and headed to their heavenly White Castle, where sliders don’t give you indigestion, where shakes don’t raise your blood sugar, and where every day is Valentine’s Day.