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Our beloved mother, Mary Therese Hartig, passed away peacefully in her sleep early in the morning on Tuesday, August 13, 2019. Her birthday is on August 28; she missed turning 94 by just 15 days. We—her daughter and four sons and her grandson, Sam—got to spend time with her these last few weeks, and we celebrated her birthday ahead of time with balloons and cake. That time was a gift to her and to us. Now she has a new birthday, and she is fully herself at last—completely Mary, daughter of God. His grace has so much covered these last days with her, and these words, watered with tears, are also filled with peace and gratitude.
For 30 years, Mom was married to our father, Bob, who passed away in 1985. Now she is with him again, and a new star shines in the heavens. She was ready and eager to go home. But she is grieved truly, and she will always be loved deeply by us, her children—Patrick, Terry, and Diane; Brian, with his wife, Cheryl, and son, Sam; and me, Bob, her firstborn. Mom was a beautiful person and a loving, devoted mother, worthy of our tears and treasured memories.
Each of us siblings sees this life from our own perspective. I can only write from my own point of view, hoping that these words, coming from my heart, will honor each of my brothers, my sister, and, above all, Mom. She herself viewed the world in a way uniquely hers.
As I write, Mom’s glasses sit in front of me below the screen of my laptop. It was through these lenses that Mom looked out on the world about her. The left lens is functional but was unnecessary, for Mom was blind in that eye. But her right eye saw the faces of loved ones, friends, caregivers, and her much-loved pooch, Brody; and it took in the flowers, trees, and birds in the yard of the home where she lived with Diane for many years, until the last three months of her life.
For most of Mom’s nearly 94 years, both of her eyes were good, and what she saw, she responded to with a mix of sweetness, quirkiness, kindness, sass, humor, faith in God, and prayer. She didn’t have much in the way of filters, and the results could be surprising and often hilarious. But it was all tempered by who she was at her core: a compassionate, giving, devoted, generous, intelligent, and deeply caring woman of character and courage who extended kindness to those around her. She had an active mind, full of curiosity about all kinds of things, especially people. To Mom, strangers were simply friends she had yet to get to know, and if you fit that bill, she would make you feel welcome and ask you questions about yourself out of genuine interest in you.
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Mom was born on August 28, 1925, to Viola and William Fellenz and grew up on their small farm in Saukville, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee, with her two brothers, Frank and Jim, and her younger sister, Barbara. After graduating from high school in nearby Port Washington, Mom attended St. Agnes School of Nursing in Fon du Lac. I’m looking now at her graduation photo from nurse’s training, taken in 1946. It shows a beautiful young woman of 20 in a nurse’s hat and uniform, looking through stylish, oval-shaped glasses that framed a big world, with all of life stretching before her.
Mom subsequently went to work at Hines Hospital in Chicago, living with three of her fellow nurses in a spacious Oak Park apartment that had been the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mom loved that apartment—and she loved being a nurse. Nursing was a natural expression of her heart as a caregiver, and both then and later in life, she made sure all her patients were treated with excellence, kindness, and respect.
One of those patients in particular, a young WWII veteran in the TB ward, captured Mom’s fancy. Some of the nurses brought him comic books; Mom, attracted by his intelligence, brought him solid literature. The two began dating, a wedding ring followed, and on a beautiful June day in 1955, Mary Therese Fellenz and Robert Francis Hartig were married.
I was born the following year, and Mom left nursing to be a mom. The young family moved to Niles, Michigan, and grew over the next eight years into a happy handful of four boys and a girl. Dad, with minimal college education, created the marketing department for the company he worked for, Garden City Fan & Blower.
In 1968, our family moved to Grand Rapids, but when a deep recession hit a couple years later, Dad lost his job. He did his best to support the family with two small businesses, but the onset of coronary disease forced him into an early retirement. Mom said that when Dad had his first heart attack, she sensed God’s presence strongly, reassuring her that he was with our family and that Dad would be okay. But our family’s financial situation looked grim. So Mom stepped up to the plate, going back to work as a registered nurse, first briefly at Kent Community Hospital, then at the Michigan Home for Veterans, where she remained till her own retirement at age 65. By then Dad was long gone, and all of us kids had grown up and made lives of our own. Mom had kept our family afloat.
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Retirement by no means meant idleness for Mom. It was just a new set of lenses through which to view life. Her curiosity about the world and her interest in people found new directions. She traveled out East with Diane. Also with Diane, she visited Terry in Sweden, and the three of them toured Norway together. Closer to home, Mom loved to get together weekly with a group of other snowy-haired women who called themselves The Q-Tips. She enjoyed going to the art museum, Meijer Gardens, and downtown events such as ArtPrize. And for as long as she was able, well into her eighties, she exercised diligently every day.
Mom’s heart as a caregiver also found new channels. As a volunteer at Palmer Elementary School, she listened to first grade kids read aloud, and she served as a Eucharistic minister for Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, taking communion to patients at Blodgett Hospital and to the homebound. She had a number of charities to which she loved to give, Habitat for Humanity being her favorite.
But age finally caught up with Mom. These glasses sitting before me, which she wore in her final days, speak to me of the lens through which she viewed everything she cherished most during her long life—her family, her friends, other people, her good works and favorite charities, and so much more. That lens was her faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul the apostle wrote these words:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. (2 Corinthians 5:1–9).
Mom’s earthly tent was failing her. She had gotten to a point where all she could do “to please him” was donate to charities and pray for people. And pray she did, daily, often. She prayed for her children, daughter-in-law, grandson, and other loved ones. She prayed for the world as a whole. And if she knew you, chances are excellent that she prayed for you. But she longed to go home.
I used to pray that someday, while lying in bed, she would awaken from her sleep and see Jesus standing by her bedside, smiling at her. He would say, “It’s time at last, Mary. Time to come home.” He would gently take her hand, and lift her up, and pain and sorrow and confusion would fall away in the presence of Love. He would guide her as only he can through the passage of death into the unending kingdom of life and light and belonging. And in that moment she would cease to be an old, frail woman and be the Mary he created her to be—no longer blind in one eye but seeing more clearly than any of us can imagine; no longer aged, lonely, and terribly fragile but younger at last, and more vital and happy, than her own daughter and sons are in this time-bound world.
God has answered that prayer. So as I cry, I also thank my Lord. And we, Mom’s sons and daughter, are grateful we have had Mary, God’s daughter with her own unique name and story, for our loving, self-giving mother. She was as flawed and human as any of us. But the sacrifices she made for us were many, and her love for us persevered through the hardships and seasons of life, constant, a rock in our lives. Not every mother deserves to be called one. But Mom was a true mother, and we are blessed to have had her for our mother.
Thank you, Mom.
We will always love you.
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Date: Saturday, September 14, 2019
Visitation: 10:00 a.m.
Funeral: 11:00 a.m.
Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church
2275 Diamond Ave. NE
Grand Rapid, MI 49505