Jody Morello Bender is an only child and in the 1960s, when her dad would work the night shift, she and her mom would watch “The Phil Donahue Show” and the evening news together.
“She never shied away from discussing complicated things with me,” Bender said. “Vietnam, civil rights, so much was going on then. We talked about it all.”
When Bender was making plans for life after high school, she wanted to attend Duquesne University in nearby Pittsburgh. No one in her family had ever gone to college. Her dad nudged her toward secretarial school. Her mom nudged him toward supporting their daughter’s ambitions.
“My mom said, ‘You know what? She really needs to go to college,’” Bender said.
And away she went.
Bender finds herself this week paging through memories of her mom — some captured in photos and cards and other mementos, some simply tucked away in her mind. Edie Morello passed away on April 29 after contracting COVID-19. She was 97.
“I was really lucky to have her as a mom,” Bender told me. “Especially to have her this long.”
Morello lived 95 of her years in Pennsylvania (Easton, then Allentown), the youngest girl in a family of nine children. She was voted “most debonair” in her high school yearbook. She was Edith Spagnola back then.
She loved to dance, and in 1947 she married a man named Joseph Morello who would always join her. They even met at a church dance.
“My dad was as fun as my mom was quiet,” Bender said. “They loved to dance together — always out with friends on Saturday nights. I used to have so much fun sitting and watching her get ready in the bathroom, putting all her makeup on.”
Bender’s dad had a heart attack and passed away in 2000. Eight years later, her mom moved to the Fountains of Crystal Lake, a retirement community not far from Bender’s Grayslake home.
On April 7, Morello was hospitalized with a fever and body aches. Four days later, she tested positive for COVID-19.
Bender scooped up a bunch of family photos, had reprints made at Walgreens and brought them to the hospital in frames for the nurses to place around her mom’s room.
“I didn’t want her to be afraid,” Bender said. “They put them where she could see them.”
One of the pictures was her 1947 wedding photo. Bender’s dad gave Bender a copy when she returned from her own honeymoon and was packing up to move across the state.
“He said, ‘So you don’t forget what we look like,’” she said. “We’ve displayed it on our TV ever since.”
When it became clear that her mom wasn’t going to recover, Bender had her transferred to JourneyCare hospice in Barrington to live out her final days. Her room had a little patio, and Bender and her husband were able to sit outside and talk to Morello through a screen door. They did that for hours.
Bender woke up to storms in the early hours of April 29 and wrestled with how to go visit her mom in the rain. Her phone rang at 4:33 a.m. Her mom had passed away.
“Mom took that decision off my shoulders,” Bender said.
The hospice staff asked Bender if she’d like to choose a “walkout song” to accompany her mom being carried to the funeral vehicle. Nurses and other staff members lined up in the hall as Morello was carried out to Doris Day’s “A Bushel and a Peck.”
I love you a bushel and a peck
A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck
A hug around the neck and a barrel and a heap
A barrel and a heap and I’m talkin’ in my sleep
About you, about you
“Mom sang that to me and my cousins and our babies all my life,” Bender said. “The joy with which she sang it, and her eyebrows would go up. It was adorable. It was an adorable Edie memory.”
My mom used to sing me the same song. I sing it to both of my kids.
Mother’s Day will be hard this year, Bender said. Her sons are grown — 33 and 31 — and both live out of state. She’s planning to take a bike ride and order pizza, two annual traditions.
But she feels a lot of gratitude.
“Mom was so well taken care of and so well supported,” Bender said. “The whole way through, everyone saw her as a person. You see the numbers every day and they’re staggering. And you think, behind every person is a family. These people all have stories.”
She worries about the toll this is all taking on the nurses and doctors and support staff at hospitals, nursing homes, retirement communities, hospice facilities.
“They’re used to death, but not on this scale,” Bender said. “There are so many things we’re going to need a national conversation about: health care and how we take care of people in these jobs and the value of people’s lives.”
I agree. And I hope we have them in good faith, in honor of sweet Edie Morello and every one who has lost a life to this virus or devoted a life to fighting it. We owe them that.
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