Friday, November 26, 2010

The Women in My Family Tree - Patricia Landon Kelly Petersen

First in a series of profiles of the women in my family tree.

Patricia Landon Kelly Petersen
1927 - 1983
Introduction: Last summer, I was emotionally moved by Lisa Alzo's presentation on telling the stories of your female ancestors at the Family History Expo in Kansas City. As I have been gathering information and scanning photographs of the women in my family tree, I've decided to begin a new series on called The Women in My Family Tree. It seems fitting that I begin this series with the woman who gave me life, my mother, Patricia Landon Kelly Petersen.

Of all the women I will be writing about in the coming months, my closest relationship is, of course, with my mother. Rather than making assumptions and inferences from newspaper articles, diaries, letters and photographs, this profile is filtered through the eyes of a loving daughter about the woman who raised me, and who, along with my father, gave me values I still live by today. She left this earthly life much too soon in 1983 when she was only 55 years old, eight months after discovering cancer had ravaged through her body. I never saw her age, never saw her grow old. In her last moments, she pulled me close and said, "You're the best thing that ever happened to me." I could say the same about her.

Born in Greenwood, Nebraska

Patricia Landon Kelly was born in a farmhouse two miles north of Greenwood, Nebraska on February 8, 1927. She was the youngest child of William (Bill) Kelly, Sr. and Sina Harriet Bellinger. Sina wanted to name the baby Genevieve, but Sina's cousin, Henrietta "Aunt Etty" Beale objected and said, "You can name her that, but I'm going to call her Pat." Mom's birth certificate never carried a first or middle name until she was about 50 years old, when she had her name added.

Landon was Sina's mother's maiden name and Mom never liked her middle name, Landon, and all of her papers from her pre-teen and teenage years are signed Patty Ann Kelly. Not realizing that wasn't her real middle name, her brother and his wife named their first daughter Patricia Ann, after Mom.

Patty Kelly on Teddy
earliest photo of Mom
Mom grew up on the farm and there was no shortage of animals. Like her father, she developed an early love of horses and over the years became an accomplished horsewoman. I always found it puzzling that she never allowed me on a horse - ever. The reason she gave was that she was afraid I would get hurt.

As a youngster, she had dreams of performing on horses in a circus or rodeo and fancied herself as "the girl of the golden west."

The Kelly family had a beloved pony named Teddy that grew up right along the children. Even as teens, Mom and her girlfriends would ride Ted around Greenwood.

Girl of the Golden West
The Depression hit all families hard and the Kellys were no exception. Since they farmed and gardened, they were still able to put food on the table. They played just as hard as they worked and the children always seemed to be getting into all sorts of scrapes and accidents.

Mom recalled when she had split her head open - it may have been a riding accident, but I don't remember. Her brother, Jiggs (William, Jr.), charged other kids to come in to the house to get a look at her brains. Isn't that just like an older brother?

The Kelly family moved into the town of Greenwood and, after attending country school for a couple years, she attended the Greenwood city school through 12th grade. It was just last year when cousin Pat came to visit that we learned that Mom did not graduate with her class. I knew that Mom had lived in Texas for a while in her late teens. Why? It remains a mystery - and one that I have not yet decided if I want to pursue.

Getting married and having a family

Patricia and Kenneth Petersen
June 14, 1947
Mom was home visiting from Texas when she met my father in about 1946. He was just out of the Navy following World War II. According to Dad, she had planned to return to Texas, but after a whirlwind of dating, she decided to stay in Greenwood.

The couple was married on June 14, 1947. In the early years of their marriage they lived in Wahoo and Grand Island, Nebraska. They became dealers for Stanley Home Products, booked home parties and showed housewives how to make their homes sparkle and shine with mops, brooms, and cleaners. Can you imagine anyone surviving on that career path today?

Mom and Dad were married for 28 years when they divorced. But I had a great childhood and they were awesome parents. From Mom, I got the love of reading, learning, history, music and the arts. From Dad, I got the love of baseball, work ethic and business sense. I always felt that I got the best of both of them. I was an only child, which I always believed was a blessing and not a curse. We always said we were the three musketeers and if no one else looked out for us, we would look out for each other.

Mom was home during my early years and later on, only worked out of financial necessity for the family and for my education. Thanks to both of my parents, no scholarships were needed, no student loans and when I graduated from the University of Nebraska, my education was paid for by the hard work of all three of us.

After the divorce, Mom had to support herself and got a job with a local mail order company. It was during those last eight years of her life that she and I bonded not only as mother and daughter, but as friends. We did absolutely everything together. We made our weekend trips to our cabins at Lake McConaughy near Ogallala, Nebraska. That pretty much was our second home between Memorial Day and Labor Day every year. We attended all of the concerts at the Ak-sar-ben (spell it backwards) arena in Omaha every year. We made the county fair circuit to hear our favorite country music performers. We went to the horse races and bet on the horses with Irish-themed names (we won, too!). We went "junking" as we called going to garage sales. We had a lot of fun together.

Ms. Petersen Goes to Washington
One of the biggest thrills of Mom's life was a trip we made to Washington, D.C. in 1980. She loved history and loved politics and it had been a dream of hers to visit the nation's capitol. We had a blast! We visited the White House, all of the monuments, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian - you name it. We got separated from one another in the panda house at the National Zoo - even at the age of 30, I was feeling like a lost child and I wanted my Mommy! After she got sick, she told me that she was so glad she was able to make that trip.

Just before Memorial Day weekend in 1982, Mom called early on a Sunday morning saying how much pain she was in and needed to go to the hospital. I was there in a flash, running a few red lights at 5:00 a.m. when no one could see me and we went to the emergency room. The cause of her pain was a strangulated hernia, but, later in the day, following surgery, the doctor told me that her body was "full of cancer" and that it was terminal. That was the first time Mom had been in a hospital as a patient since giving birth to me.

During the next eight months, Mom had radiation that burned through her body, chemotherapy that robbed her of the beautiful thick black hair that was her trademark and through it all, she continued to work when she could. She refused my offer to drive her to radiation and chemo treatments. Her employer was a family owned business and they kept her on the payroll and maintained her insurance throughout her illness. They would bring work to her apartment so she could stuff catalogs in envelopes when she was up to it.

Mom continued to spend a lot of time reading and about once a week, I would go to the library and pick up about ten new releases to take to her. One time, I brought one that I thought was a horse story. I asked how she liked it and she replied, "it's about a woman who has cancer." We had to laugh.

During Mom's illness, she showed me what it is like to be strong during adversity. Even knowing her illness was terminal, she continued to talk of the future. In December 1982, she spent three weeks at the University of Nebraska medical center in Omaha and that was when we learned she was near the end. We came home to Lincoln and I was with her around the clock and hospice was arranged.

I remember us watching TV news about Hollywood coming to Lincoln to film what became the Oscar winning film, Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. Scenes from that movie were filmed at Lincoln General Hospital - with Winger's character dying of cancer there. I love that film, but I can never get through it with a dry eye. The patient rooms, the nurse's station - everything was exactly as they were during Mom's illness.

Mom's strength was never as strong as it was the last two weeks of her life. As she sat in bed, filled with morphine and pain killers, she asked me to bring her the drawers from her desk, one at a time, as she sorted through her papers. She laid out the information I would need after she was gone and tore up some old letters that she preferred I not read. "I had to go through this with both of my parents," she said to me. "I don't want you to have to go through all of this." We laid on her bed as she went through the pieces of her life. We laughed and we cried. It was the best two weeks that I could have ever imagined spending with my Mom. Mom and I wore the same size clothing (much smaller than today!), and she said, "I want you to wear my clothes. They are still good. I wore my mom's clothes after she died." And for a long time, I did wear her clothes. It was my way of keeping her next to me.

Mom wrote out the instructions for her funeral, stating she wanted to be cremated and who she wanted to have speak at her service.

It was about two or three a.m. on January 19, 1983 when Mom told me she was ready to go to the hospital. We phoned our hospice lady who arranged for the ambulance to take Mom and I followed in my car. I was at her side all night. She drifted in and out of consciousness and when she was lucid, we would talk and hold hands. You've all heard the stories about loved ones waiting for you on the other side. As Mom was drifting in and out, she was speaking aloud, and I was hearing her side of the conversation with her Dad and other family members. It was a bit unnerving at first, but it was enough to give me faith in finally believing that there truly is a dimension beyond this one and that the soul survives the body. I thank Mom for giving me that last gift.

So - that is my mother through my eyes. The love remains and I feel her presence - unexpected but always when I most need it. She will always be the most important woman in my family tree.


  1. Wow - this truly brought tears to my eyes and at the same time a smile to my face. This is not only a wonderful tribute to your Mom, but an incredible piece of writing. This is why names and dates are NEVER enough. Thank so much for sharing your mother with us!

  2. I love this post. Last Mother's Day I tried to do a similar post, with the women in my matrilineal line. After 30 years of genealogy and eleven Mayflower applications, I was shocked to find that my matrilineal line only went back six generations to a real brick wall. It was only in examining the mothers that I found this out! I'm still stuck, but it's been a fun line to work on.

  3. What a lovely and gallant woman! I'm so impressed with your portrait of her - loving, good humored and honest - not to mention well written and constructed. A joy to read.

  4. Susan, What a loving tribute to your mother. Although you had shared some info. with me, I didn't know all this. It is such a shame God took her from you, others who loved her and others who would have loved knowing her now. She was so young, and so brave. You carry wonderful traits thanks to your parents. I loved that you spent Thanksgiving day talking abt. the past with your dad too.
    Thank you for this, I'll always remember this piece.

  5. Thanks so much for the very kind comments, ladies. I really appreciate them.

  6. How lucky the two of you were to have had one another - I can only hope that my relationship with my daughters will turn out to be as strong as this one. Thank you for writing this.

  7. Susan,

    This is a very loving tribute. I so enjoyed reading it!

  8. Susan, that was so powerful. Thank you for sharing your story!