Wednesday, October 24, 2018

'What are you thinking, Momma?': A goodbye to Peggy Banks

Peggy Banks, "movie star," as a teenager.
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When I found Mom at the assisted living center, she was sitting alone in a chair, staring straight ahead with those beautiful blue eyes. Gently stroking her thinning white hair, I hugged her frail body and kissed her on the cheek. An uneaten bowl of vegetable soup sat on the small wooden table in front of her. Unable to feed herself, I carefully fed her several spoonfuls of broth and dabbed her mouth with a cloth. Then I grasped Peggy Banks' wrinkled hand and whispered into her ear, “What are you thinking, Momma?”

Mom, brother David and a mischievous mini-me long ago.
She often said David resembled her.
A family member told me our ability to hear might be the last of the senses to go. I hope somehow Peggy processed what else I said to her: “We love you, Mom,” I repeated several times. “It's time for you to go see Dad.” She attempted to mouth some words in response, but nothing came out, and I just bawled. Our visit was the last time we spent together. The soul-crushing Alzheimer’s disease had accomplished its evil work.

Watching a loved one die is tough. Watching a loved one die from Alzheimer’s -- as Mom, 81, did at noon Wednesday -- is doubly awful because you lose them when their mind goes and again when they pass on. But while we grieve for Peggy, we have much to celebrate, just as we did two years ago when we lost Dad, “Big Johnny.” What tremendous lives they led. What great examples they were for their children, David, Mary Ann and me.

Mom and my sister, Mary Ann, in Glenside, Pa.
From Eastern European heritage, Mom disliked her given name, Olga. Kids in her grade school teased her about it, so she went by Peggy. One of six children from a family of modest means, she grew up in a skinny, three-story row house in a working-class neighborhood in Allentown, Pa. Her father, who died before we Banks kids were born, served in the U.S. Army during World War I and worked as a coal miner, among other jobs. Her mother, our “Grammy,” thankfully passed on to Mom the ability to cook Slovak food. The smell of halupkis often wafted through our kitchen, much to our delight.

Mom didn't have an opportunity to go to college, but she enjoyed telling us she skipped third grade because she was so smart. She also won a school contest for memorizing the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps Peggy passed along the "Civil War gene" to me.

Mom worked as a bank teller for a time, and had an innate ability to pick stocks. We had no clue until near the end of her life. She had a few idiosyncrasies, too. "Don't use so much hot water," she always told us before we showered in our bathroom with the funky blue-and-pink tiles.

Dad, Mom and our daughters, Meredith and Jessica, atop
 Mount Washington overlooking downtown Pittsburgh.
She never hesitated to tell us kids what we meant to her and "Big Johnny." "We're so proud of you," she often said.  (Damn, it's hard to even type that now.)

Mom was beloved by my pals in the Sunset Hills area of Mount Lebanon, Pa., who called her the “sweetest lady on Old Farm Road.” But this sweet, little lady once chased a teenager behind a toilet in the downstairs powder room in our house, smacking him with a broom. My punishment was well deserved. Years afterward, we often laughed about it.

Our friends often observed Peggy tooling around town in her blue Volkswagen Beetle with a sunroof. She didn't learn how to drive until she was in her late 20s. Rarely, if ever, did she top 35 mph, and she never drove on an interstate. At least we think she never did. How Dad had the patience to teach Mom to drive remains one of the great mysteries of life.

When we kids married and had our own children, she and Dad made 321 Old Farm Road a welcoming home base for all of us. Oh how she loved her grandchildren, Evan, Ryan, Camille,Travis, Jessica and Meredith. “How are the girls?” she often inquired in a sing-song voice about our daughters. Those words will forever remain on the soundtrack in my mind.

The Banks family at 321 Old Farm Road, Mount Lebanon, Pa.
Here’s a story that makes my wife and me chuckle: During visits home, Peggy frequently made  little roast beef sandwiches, racing past Carol and my sister to the basement to deliver the feast to her first-born. She was the mustard master, placing just the right amount of the condiment on each sandwich for me. In fact, she always wanted to feed people. " (____________), you look hungry," she'd say. "Do you want a sandwich?" We must have heard that line thousands of times.

In the hospice room near Mom's bed, my sister hung our paternal grandmother's painting of a guardian angel. Neil Diamond songs played. She loved his singing. Mary Ann and David believe it brought her comfort. Thank you, Neil. Dressed in a beautiful purple top, Peggy fought until the end. "She had a strong heart," my sister said. We all knew that.

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 to Alzheimer's Association
And so life moves on without her here physically. God, we wonder sometimes why it must be so hard. Watching aged parents go can be agonizing. No playbook exists for The End.

Wherever your spirit soars now, Peggy Banks, know you’ll always be in our hearts. Tell Dad in heaven we said hello. We know he'd appreciate several of those little roast beef sandwiches now, too. We're so proud of both of you. Bravo for lives well lived.

Holding Peggy Banks' hand for the last time.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. John,Very touching.Our Mom's are unique;with us from our first breath,hopefully for a very long time afterwords.Unfortunately ,I am in exactly the same place as you,our Mom passed away 2 weeks ago tomorrow.My Mother had a modest amount of dementia and went quickly due other causes.I have relatives with Alzheimers,an absolutely horrible disease.Unless a cure be found "it will be the scourge of our generation."Take solace in your fond memories and rest assured that she is with The Lord.We shall all meet again "where no death ,sickness ,evil exists." Peace be with You...

  2. I’m so sorry John. But take comfort in knowing she is free from this terrible disease. She will join your dad in eternity, healthy and as the person you love and remember.

  3. John, good job finding the words to write such a thoughtful tribute to your mom. It reminds us that we are only here temporarily and should make the best of it by enjoying the company of the people we love. Know that your mom is in a much better place.

  4. Thanks, all, for the kind words. Very meaningful.

  5. Lewis6:43 AM

    Very sorry for you and your family's loss, but thank you for typing through the tears and pain to share this story with us. God Bless you and your family, your parents are together again and I hope there is joy in that. Thank you.

  6. Mike Stretch9:03 AM

    Prayers for you and your family, John. I'm going through the long goodbye with my Dad right now, so have a sense for what you've been through. I wish you comfort and peace.

  7. What a wonderful tribute to a great woman. Sorry for your loss but happy that you have been able to live surrounded by love!

  8. God bless your Mom (and Dad). May they rest in peace together and may you cherish all the memories of two special lives and a wonderful family.