Mosaic: A Portrait of Jeanie

Jeanie Urbano March 24,1955-July 5, 2011

At last I am leaving:                          
in rainless skies, a cool moon…        
pure is my heart 

by Senseki

I had been posting every single day since Jeanie died, but I was so emotionally exhausted yesterday that I couldn’t write.  Last week seems like a blur. I don’t even know how I taught.  I put my best self forward and just did it, but in retrospect, it feels like someone else stepped in for me and took over teaching for me.  I am not sure where she came from, but I am glad I have this other person tucked away inside of me at times like this!  Strange, huh?

Rick and I rented a car from O’Hare and drove to Nora’s house.  The drive to her house was unbelievable.  We were treated to the most beautiful mid western sunset, a fire blazing across the sky.  Deep reds and streaks of yellow, bits of purple.  My camera was tucked in my luggage, so I seared the image in my mind.  Just as the sun was setting, a big fat full moon was coming up.  The scenery was so surreal.  It felt like Jeanie was welcoming me back to Indiana and thanking me for being here to celebrate her!  When I saw Nora, I melted in her arms.  For a brief moment, it felt like my big sis would make everything ok again.  If only she could.  Our loss is so enormous.   I am so happy to be here with family!

I have been gathering everyone’s stories and impressions and memories of Jeanie and put together a Mosaic: A Portrait of Jeanie and will include all of what was written below.  There is one more coming from Jeanie’s best friend, Sue Hughes.  You already saw Vince’s writing, The Perfect Mother, in a previous blog, so I will not include that below, though I believe it is so incredibly soulful and I hope you all have had a chance to read it.  I know this is long, but I couldn’t cut anything out!

From Toni Urbano (mother-in-law):  I can’t put into words what Jeanie meant to me.  She was closer to Jesus than any of us.  None of us are perfect, but if there was ever a person who was close to being perfect, it was Jeanie.  Her cup was never half empty. It was never half full.  For Jeanie, her cup was always full; it was overflowing!  When I visited her, it didn’t matter what I brought her, and you didn’t have to bring her anything, but she accepted each little gift as if it was something exceptional. The smallest thing brought her so much happiness.  I liked to take her something to eat.  She always smiled.  I always loved her.  I LOVED her!  She was OURS no matter what!  The biggest regret that I walk with, the guilt that I live with, is that we weren’t there enough for her.   But she never complained.  Jeanie accepted whatever we gave her with such gratitude.

From Nora (Gallo) Brown (sister):  Jeanie was my sister and one of my best friends.  We went through some tough times together.  How many times the phone would ring in the middle of the night, a nurse telling me that Jeanie was in the ER.  I would get up and go meet her at the hospital, finding her smiling as soon as she saw my face. She was my hero. One time when I was visiting her at the nursing home, I told her I had to go because I had to go grocery shopping and I was complaining that I was tired of going shopping.  She said, “I wish I could get up and go for you.”  I never complained again about going shopping.  She taught me to count my blessings, the simple things we take for granted like getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom, cooking a meal and eating it, or taking a walk in the sunshine.

We also went through some happy, fun times like taking the kids to the park, going shopping together, canning tomatoes together, and just being sisters together.  Jeanie, I will always hold you in my heart and love you so very much.

She was beautiful inside and out, caring about others and making them feel good about themselves.  One of the most meaningful things she did in her life was give birth to her two sons, John and Vince, They have so many of her wonderful qualities.  John inherited her artistic gift, her loving nature, and love of family. Vince also inherited her loving and caring nature and love for family. She lives on through them.

From Toni Gallo  (sister):  What I will remember about Jeanie is that it always made me happy to be with her.  I loved to play bingo with her.  I loved Jeanie very much.

From Zina (Gallo) Brechbill (sister):  My memories of Jeanie growing up were that she was always helping mom in every way she could. As a young girl, Jeanie loved baking, sewing, drawing and had a passion for doing hair. Jeanie was very goal oriented and succeeded in many areas of her life.  Even as a teen babysitter, she had quite the reputation as the best sitter in Wright Manor! Jeanie was meticulous, highly organized, always had a plan, and loved to dream about her future. What comes to my mind when I think of Jeanie is that she sold her first oil painting at 12, she designed and made her own clothes and, later, her children’s clothes, and that she was a master hair stylist of 15 years with her customers lining up out the door!  Jeanie had a sense of fashion with a European flair. When she walked into a room, she would turn heads with her amber eyes, infectious smile, golden skin, and long silk spun hair. Today when I think of Jeanie, I think of the loving mother, daughter, and friend she was.  She gave us unconditional love and unending forgiveness.  She was a woman devoted to God and she was proud of her family heritage.I will miss your love,  Zina

From Fran Gallo (sister):  Jeanie loved her family and she loved life!  I remember how she loved loud thunderstorms. She would open the back screen door at the Merrillville house and watch the rain.  My mom told us that when Jeanie was a little girl, she used to tear her dolls apart!  Later, for a short while, she wanted to be a nun.

She designed and sewed her outfits.  She was always stylish, beautiful, and elegant. She was a good, fearless driver. She loved to go to bed early, at 8 pm on school nights.  Before going to bed, she’d wash her long hair, dry it, and then carefully arrange her hair underneath her and fall asleep on her back. She didn’t move all night, so her hair would be super straight in the morning. She loved helping mom, especially around canning time when I was busy trying to think of some way to get out of it.

She was a hard worker from a young age and a very talented artist.  Her art featured in her high school art walk. There was one of a mountain with evergreens that got sold at the art show.  At home, all the neighborhood ladies brought their clothing to her for alterations.  She also did everyone’s hair at our house (family and neighbors). I think she was only about 14 or 15 and doing all this great stuff!

We went to Italy when she was 16 and all the young guys went crazy and wanted to marry her.  They serenaded her under grandma’s balcony.

I used to spend the night at Jeanie’s when the kids were little.  She was the best big sister! After we put the kids to bed, I’d watch her polish her long nails.  She kept her house spotless. She loved to have cookouts!  She was a great cook and there were always homemade cookies at her house. She loved Grandma and Grandpa Lee and often took me to see them. She loved her dog! She was an artist and made beautiful Christmas gifts, including a quilted photo album I still have. She sewed all of the bridal gowns for Zina’s first wedding!  I never once remember her criticizing me. She was always there to celebrate me and to point out the good in me.

Jeanie touched so many lives, and had a gift of making each person feel special. Her lucky sons, John and Vince, inherited her precious heart and beautiful soulful spirit.  During her long illness, she lived to see her boys and her family and friends. For a long time she believed there’d be a cure for MS within her lifetime.   She remains to this day the strongest person I know.  Her heart was filled with so much love.  The goal of life is to leave this world a better place, to touch lives, to love, and be loved.  Jeanie accomplished all of that. Everyone here today has been touched by her in some profound way.  She taught us about living, and now taught us about dying. I have never had a better teacher.   I will always hold you in my heart, Jeanie.

From Aunt Lily (Gallo) Lum (aunt):  Jeanie was always special to me.  When I had my restaurant business in Brunswick (Gary, Indiana), she was a little girl and used to sweetly ask Uncle Sam for pop -coca cola-, and potato chips!  Uncle Sam had a special place in his heart for her and always gave her what she asked for.  Then she would bring her new friends in to the restaurant, walk up to the bar, and ask him for treats for her friends!  He always gave her anything she asked for.  She knew about Uncle Sam’s soft spot for her and I can still hear her asking him, “Uncle Sam, when are you gonna take us to Dairy Queen??”  She didn’t just ask for herself, but she included all her sisters, too!  The lady who owned that Dairy Queen in Brunswick is still alive and lives in DeMotte.  I see her sometimes and she still says, “I still remember how your husband used to come to my Dairy Queen with those four cute kids!”

And Jeanie was curious!  One day when the family was visiting, she went into my bedroom and was looking in the drawers. We had no idea where she disappeared to or what she was doing.  Suddenly, Jeanie came out of our bedroom and into the living room with a GUN in her hand!  She found Uncle Sam’s gun!  Everybody was so scared!  I stood up and said, “Nobody say anything!” I got up and bravely approached her, the gun pointed right at me.  I tried to stay calm.  I grabbed some candy and said, “Jeanie, honey, I love you!”  I went to her, gave her the candy, and gently took the gun away!  She was 5 or 6 years old.  She was really something else!

Years later, when she first was sick, I visited her every week and brought her and her family bags and bags of home cooked food.  I would put the extra food in her freezer.  One day my Aunt Giovanina came to visit from Canada.  She said, “I would like to visit Jeanie.”  So Uncle Gardner drove us to see Jeanie.  It was winter.  When we started off, the weather was fine.  Then suddenly the worst snowstorm hit!  I will never forget it.  Uncle Gardner was driving as slowly and carefully as he could and my Aunt Giovanina was sitting in the back seat, saying the rosary!  We made it to Jeanie’s.  Aunt Giovanina brought her a beautiful pair of pajamas and I brought her food.  Jeanie was so happy to see us!  She looked at the bags I brought in and said, “Aunt Lily, what did you bring for me?”  I said, “Lasagna!”  I was rewarded with the most beautiful smile.  Jeanie gave me more than I could ever give her. I loved Jeanie so much.

From Angie  (Stapinksi) Hummel  (niece):  When Jeanie was still driving, she would race down the country roads of Rensselaer.  I can remember the strong odor of cow manure wafting through the maroon Oldsmobile. She would drive me to Busy Bee for ice cream. I would tell her, “Punch it Margaret!”  She would crack up and fly down the narrow dusty roads! Her laugh was contagious.

From Joe Stapinski (nephew, Godson):  I don’t know where to start when talking about Jeanie.  She was my Godmother and we almost always celebrated the same birthday in March – hers the 24th and mine the 26th.  I remember visiting her in Crown Point when I was growing up.  I got haircuts from her and loved her spunky zest for life.   I always picture Aunt Jeanie with a smile on her face and hear her wonderful laugh.   Even after she got sick with MS, I remember her positive outlook on life and her belief that they would find some medication to help her fight that horrible disease.  I remember the times we would visit and the love she had for her family: her sons, Mike, her sisters, and Grandma and Grandpa, her extended family, and her in-laws.  The family dinners we had at Grandma and Grandpa’s house were always entertaining and I remember Jeanie getting teased by Mike about eating too much (even though she was always skinny) and the good times we had when we were together.

One experience I remember with Aunt Jeanie was going to a small amusement park back home and the fun we had driving there and at the park.  I also remember something she drew and painted of mom and me back when I was a baby.  It was a beautiful picture that I will never forget.  Her artistic ability was something she passed on to Johnnie and shared with everyone around her.  I love you, Aunt Jeanie.  We know you are walking up in heaven today.

From Christine Brechbill (niece):  When I was little, I had the joy of living with my Aunt Jeanie when she moved in with my family and me. We spent many wonderful summer days together eating popsicles and watching movies.  What I enjoyed most was when she would let me look through her jewelry box and she would share with me how and where she got each piece.

Later in life when my father became wheelchair bound and sick with cancer, he would express his doubts.  He would ask me, “How am I ever going to get through this?” I would say, “If Aunt Jeanie can do this, so can you.”

My Aunt Jeanie lived her life with grace, happiness and determination, regardless of where life took her.

From Chuck Stapinski (nephew):  I have great memories of playing at Aunt Jeanie’s house when I was a kid.  Mostly, I remember wondering if there would be a cake and if so, which of my favorite Sesame Street characters would be on it!  She was an artist. I did not see much of her work because I was too young.  As we both got older, she lost her ability to share her gift on paper or canvas.  I do know she inspired her son John with whom she shared her gift of art and he has shared this amazing gift with the world.  
I know it was hard for her to lose her abilities and not be able to share them.  I think she was angry for a short time.  Mostly though, she was gracious and chose to compliment everyone she met.  She was generous and genuine with her compliments.  She always encouraged me to share my gift of singing and showed no signs of jealousy.  She would just say “Bravo” and smile.  It is easy to take what you have for granted.  Often when I was stressed or scared about singing on stage, or wondering why I was trying to memorize a certain song, I would try to remember how courageous my Aunt Jeanie was, think about what she had lost and how hard it was for her.  I know that if she could, she would share her gifts, and she would want me to share my gifts as well.  
In recent years when she was not as active physically, I remember how she just wanted to talk and know how everyone was doing.  She loved talking and asking about my wife and the kids.  Also, she would give the biggest hugs and never let go.

From Rosetta Licata Meredith  (Uncle Charlie’s daughter, Jeanie’s cousin):  My first impression of Jeanie was a vision of beauty. She had come to meet me on my arrival from England in the 70’s. She was vibrant, full of love, full of excitement. This was our first meeting and her hug was so mighty and powerful that I knew she had so much love to give. Jeanie radiated the same warmth to everyone around her and I remember looking at her with her beautiful sons, Vince, a babe in arms, and John, a little boy with his mother’s cheeky smile.

Jeanie was full of intrigue and curiosity. She asked me so many questions about her family in Sicily and England.  I remember long chats, her laughter, and her sincere caring ways.  I will carry you always in my heart, my dear cousin, Jeanie.  love Rosetta.

From Vince Licata (Uncle Charlie’s son, Jeanie’s cousin)                                                                      My Beautiful Jeanie                                                                                                                                                             I am blessed to have memories of my cherished cousin when she was in her youth and prime. Those were the days when she could set fire to the rain just with her beautiful smile, spirit, and soul.

Jeanie will continue to be a blooming rose in a winter garden.  She will continue to inspire with what was her strength to live.  But, alas, after many years she left us to take a long deserved rest for a better life. See you in heaven, my dear cousin.  You will always be in my thoughts. Love, Vince

From Mike Stanley (nephew):  My earliest memory of Jeanie goes back to when she and her family still lived in Crown Point.  One day when I was staying overnight, Vince and I were playing outside and somehow we managed to light a giant foam sponge on fire for fun!  Well, as you can imagine, the foam took a blaze very quickly, prompting Vince to quickly drop it out of his hand… only it didn’t hit the ground.  It fell into a giant shrub that went along the side of the house.  The shrub was 4 feet high and at least 10-15 feet long.  The whole thing caught on fire.  I recall Jeanie, screaming, coming towards the fire with a hose, and putting out the fire.  Obviously she was upset with us!  We almost burned down the entire house!  But, instead of spanking us for the rest of the night (which we well deserved), she yelled at us briefly, and warned us that when Uncle Mike got home we were in huge trouble (lol). Then she took us inside, calmed us down, and made us a snack.  Here us kids had almost burned her house down and, yet, she still understood how traumatic it was for us, and that we needed to be nurtured in that moment more that anything else. It may seem like a small example, but to me it defines how loving she was.

My more recent memories of Jeanie are that every time I saw her she was smiling. She never wanted sympathy. She never wanted anyone to worry about how she was. She wanted to know how YOU were!  I know a lot of time she probably felt horrible, yet I always got the feeling that she cared more about how everyone else was doing, and that she purposely hid a good bit of her pain or frustration to protect the ones she loved from grief. This constant and consistently positive attitude shows just how selfless she was, and reminds me of how I long I have to go before I have even half the heart and half the courage she had.

From John Urbano (son):

JEANIE URBANO

:  My Mother            My mother was born in Belgium on March 24th, 1956. She spoke French, Italian and English. She spent part of her childhood growing up in Europe and immigrated to the US with her family in the late 50’s.  She lived in Merrillville, Indiana. She met my father in high school when she was fifteen years old. They got married when she was eighteen. She gave birth to me, her first son, when she was nineteen, and to her second son, my brother, Vince, when she was twenty-four years old. She graduated from Merrillville Beauty College. She was an incredible artist, a creative seamstress, and the old ladies from the hair shop all bragged that she was the best hair stylist around. She took great care of my brother and me when we were children. She loved us dearly and was the kind of mother who would read us books, do lots of crafts with us, take us to the park, and make us great big dinners that ended with a walk to the Dairy Queen for an ice cream cone.  Oh, and she gave great back scratches—which were always my favorite. She made sure we knew and spent quality time with our three sets of grandparents. That was very important to her. We’d spend Saturdays and Sundays with my Italian grandparents and/or my Irish grandma and with my Great-Grandma Lee. We didn’t have much money when I was a kid, but my mother always made sure we had what we needed. We had a very happy life.

In 1985, my mother began to fall ill.  She began to drop things. Her hands would go numb. She tired easily. High temperatures would bother her. She began the long process of seeing doctors and specialists to try and figure out what was going on. In 1987, when I was in the 7th grade and my brother in the 2nd grade, my parents came home from yet another doctor’s visit and told us mom had something called Multiple Sclerosis—a rare and very dangerous condition.  At this very moment, I knew Vince and I were about to be robbed of our precious mother. My heart literally ached. The doctors put my mom on a cocktail of medications, including anabolic steroids to try and keep her strong. Little was known about MS at the time. My mother became a Guinea pig for MS experimentation. By 1990 my mom was using a walker. By 1992, she was in a wheelchair. My mom loved us boys so much that it tore her completely in half to know she couldn’t do the things she used to do for her two boys. If a doctor would offer up an experimental medication to make her better, she was the first to raise her hand in hopes of getting her life back.  

Over the course of 26 years MS robbed my mother of her ability to walk, her ability to straighten her legs, her ability to remember current events, her ability to use her left arm/hand.  Her vision suffered, her kidneys were slowly dying, her brain had lesions on it, her stomach had ulcers, she had bedsores on her back and feet, her veins often collapsed.  She contracted the infection MRSA from going in and out of hospitals and this made her frequently septic. At the end of her life, she was beginning to lose her voice.

  She lost so much, but she was never defeated! What MS wasn’t able to take away from my mother was her spirit and her great love for everyone.  If you knew Jeanie Urbano and someone said her name, you couldn’t help but think of her big brown eyes, her gentle touch, her loving smile, her speaking Italian, and her great sense of humor. She had a way with words like no other. She made you smile and she made you laugh. She made everyone who came to visit her happy. She was pure love, pure happiness, pure hope, pure comfort, pure joy. She was the most heart-felt, beautiful person that I’ve ever met in my life. It didn’t matter what kind of day she was having, when you asked her how she was doing, she’d always say “I’m doing pretty good today, but how are you doing?  Are you ok?” Often that reply came from a hospital bed.

She loved everyone she met. 

I’ll never forget our last exchange of words. I told her that I loved her. And she told me that she loved me more. That was my mother, Jeanie Urbano. The one who always loved everyone and everything more.

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