“So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good.” — Helen Keller
Every fall, I go to Northern Illinois University’s Homecoming football game. From this, you might guess I went to that school or am a fan of Huskies’ football. Neither is true. I go to honor and remember my friend Tina, who passed away 12 years ago.
Tina, Georgia, and I shared an apartment after we all graduated from college. They were both NIU alumni and Huskies’ fans, and Tina never missed a Homecoming. Even when she had five little children and going to the football game was not feasible, Tina and her husband Jim brought the family to NIU anyway, and they hung out outside the stadium.
I did not attend the NIU Homecoming events when Tina was alive. My youngest daughter, Mel, started going before I did. Tina’s two daughters, Lindsey and Sarah, Georgia’s daughter, Lara, and Mel have a strong friendship forged from the strong friendship of their parents. Our kids always called us “Aunt Tina,” “Aunt Georgia,” and “Aunt Sue.”
Every year, Georgia gives us the agenda for the Homecoming events. The times vary, but the activities are always the same. The Homecoming parade kicks off the events on either Friday or Saturday. One year, NIU did not schedule a parade. Tina wrote to the school and complained, and they’ve never skipped it again.
Most of our group arrives on Saturday morning and we meet at Tina’s grave. At her request, Tina is buried in DeKalb near NIU. Even though she had no relatives in the area, Tina loved being on that campus. Jim, who is now remarried, says a prayer, and we all tell stories of Tina. How she lived her life with passion. How she celebrated every one of her kids’ birthdays and every holiday with a party. How she helped out at the school and church. How she worked part-time at the Newberry Library and taught at NIU while working towards a Ph.D. in History. Her oldest child, Jason, was 16 when Tina passed away from breast cancer, and Sarah, her youngest child, was 9.
I was fortunate to be with Tina, her family, and other close friends when she took her last breath. She had written clear instructions for her “Celebration of Life” (her funeral Mass.) She wrote, “After a most solemn and beautiful liturgy, there should be a great party.” And there was.
How Tina juggled everything is beyond my comprehension. No one is perfect, and at times Tina was visibly stressed. However, she usually handled everything with an apparent ease. She cooked homemade dinners daily, baked from scratch, and created a book of “Our Holiday Traditions” for her family. Tina treated herself every night to a tiny piece of chocolate or a homemade cookie. For exercise, she walked everywhere possible. She weighed less than 100 pounds and was a 4’11” dynamo.
After remembering Tina at her grave, we go to the campus bookstore, where we purchase NIU memorabilia to show our Huskies’ pride.
Then it’s on to the East Campus lagoon. We always bring bread to feed the ducks and geese, even though in recent years, they haven’t been interested. Some of us throw around a football, and we walk around the lagoon.
Pizza Hut is next on the agenda. No, we don’t particularly like Pizza Hut, but it is part of the tradition. Cheap pizza was essential when Tina and Jim had five hungry kids, and Tina was thrifty. This year was one of our most sparse as far as our friends’ attendance. Tina’s and Georgia’s fellow alumnus Eric was there, as he is every year. Georgia’s husband Bill and daughter Lara, and Jim, Lindsey, and Sarah all came, along with my husband Ken.
After Pizza Hut, we walk to the football game, and we always wander around the tailgaters looking for some of Tina and Georgia’s old friends. We haven’t seen any of them in recent years, but we still look. One of the highlights of the game is the NIU jazz band. I remember Tina talking about the jazz band with pride many times. She loved their music.
Our activities don’t end with the football game. We always go out to “The Junction” restaurant for dinner after the game—and we always order cinnamon rolls to take home. After all, that is what Tina did.
Tina left quite a legacy behind and not just our annual routine of going to NIU in her memory. Her legacy teaches the value of traditions. Of following your passion. Of doing your best. Of going the extra mile to keep friendships strong. Of helping others. Of the comfort of homemade food. Of loving your family.
And so our annual tradition of going to NIU’s Homecoming to honor Tina will continue. We may shed a few tears at her grave, but mostly we will laugh and enjoy.
And we will remember.
Have you thought about the legacy you will leave behind? What would you like people to remember about you?