but it is the loss that shapes the image, gathers the flowers,
weaves the garland.” –Colette, My Mother’s House
I’m setting aside design today to share something so personal and intimate, that not too many people know about it, except for family and close friends…
I turn 42 years old this summer. Really shouldn’t be any big deal. Already celebrated the big 4-0. So, why have I been thinking about it so much?! Why have I had a new rush of ambition to be one of the best in my field and bigger dreams to impact others? Why now? I’ve been content with a successful design business for twenty years. I have a very nice life and a beautiful family.
And then it hit me……. My mom was the same age when she was killed. Not just killed, but (pre-meditated first degree) murdered. At age 42. The age I will soon be…
I haven’t shared this story with my employees, clients, business associates, or really anyone for that matter. Even some of my friends that I have met since this happened, do not know anything about it. My own children (her grandchildren) do not even know the details, mainly due to their young age. I guess, I never wanted anyone feeling sorry for me or my brother, so I just didn’t talk about it. And for some time, I did not feel safe, so I kept it to myself. I also never wanted to bother people with my story; most people have their own pain and difficult past, so why am I any different?
I now feel that it is time to tell what happened, for many reasons. First, I want to help others who have experienced tragedy and have felt the heavy darkness of hopelessness–that they too can get through it. Second, I want to share what helped me through this extremely difficult time. Third, it helps me personally explain why I have been currently making big goals and dreaming new dreams. And lastly and most importantly, it is time to say out loud “thank you” to my dear mom.
Mom loved peony and marigold flowers, the color red, Barbara Streisand & Bette Midler, Gone with the Wind, college and pro football (OSU, FSU, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Volkswagen Beetle convertibles, Pete Rose, collecting clown figurines, and peanut buster parfaits from Dairy Queen. She loved to bowl in her bowling league and walk on the beach. We loved to go clothes shopping together. She had an infectious laugh and smile, saw the good in everyone, and always put others’ needs before her own.
She had a hilarious sneeze—“di chewy choo, di chewy choo, di chewy CHOO!” Professionally, she was one of the top in her position; she was named Insurance Woman of the Year in 1987 by the Insurance Women of Upper Pinellas. She always missed her sisters and family in Washington, but always made time to visit them.
My fondest memories of her are when we would garden at our home in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, before we moved to Florida when I was eleven. So many summer evenings tending to an elaborate garden behind our carriage house. Vibrant vegetables, corn, and sunflowers grew in the Midwestern heat, surrounded by her beautiful peonies and marigolds.
We never shared too many physical traits, except for our blue eyes. She was 5’4”; I am almost 6’0” tall. She was a brunette, I am a blond. I would like to think I share her compassion for others and her always present kindness. She was my best friend. There was no one in the world that I enjoyed more.
“THE” forever life changing event happened on June 4, 1991, when I was 21 years old. I was living at home at the time, having recently graduated from Florida State University (in December) and then starting my interior design firm in April. My brother Eric was 10 years old, my only sibling. (Most of you know Eric as our firm’s Director of Communications. A lot of you have marveled over our unique and close relationship. This story might help explain that too.)
That day in June started like many others; my mom and I said good-bye and left for work on a Tuesday morning. My brother, a fourth grader, went off to his neighborhood school. Only 2 more days were left until summer vacation. Mom, Eric, and I had just spent a great day at my grandparents’ house, and even though we all had been going through a rough period, I remember really appreciating her and the fun that we had that weekend. I felt that life was getting back on track.
My mom was a well respected business manager at an insurance agency, with current hopes of buying into partial ownership. My office was literally no more than a ½ mile from hers. I was sharing office space with a group of other interior designers, again a new designer with a new tiny business. My mom supported my gutsy move to have my own firm, especially in the midst of the 1990/91 recession. She always gave good business advice, which I still carry with me today.
My parents had divorced while I was in college, after twenty years of marriage. My mom had custody of my brother; and she quickly remarried, to all of her family’s and friends’ dismay, to a rough looking, fast talking man, about 12 years her senior. Honestly, my first impression of him was that he was the devil himself, but in the beginning he treated my mom and brother kindly, bringing flowers for Mom and toys for Eric.
As soon as they were married, the “honeymoon” was over, with “RR” (what I will call “him”), abusing my mom both physically and emotionally. As June 1991 rolled around, after less than 1 1/2 years of marriage, Mom had filed for divorce; the divorce was to be final by late June. RR’s behavior had gotten much worse, showing up at her office, coming to social events, and even dropping by our house—uninvited. At her attorney’s advice, she filed a restraining order against RR. He continued to threaten her and say that there was no way out of the marriage. During this time, my parents were reconciling, which was welcomed by Eric and I, but obviously not by RR.
June 4th would become a day like no other. RR broke into our house sometime in the late morning. He waited for all three of us to arrive home that evening. Typically we would all get home near the same time. But that evening, I had a local design association meeting at my office. For some reason, my mom did not pick up Eric from his friend’s house, which was a block from our house. She instead went home first, along with her best friends’ two children whom she had just picked up, who were supposed to be spending the evening with Mom and Eric.
RR confronted and ambushed my mom in the kitchen, upon her arrival. Within minutes, he told the two children to go into the family room and wait. With a 12-gauge shot gun, he fatally shot her in the head. The kids, who were now witnesses to the ghastly crime, ran out of our house to a neighbor’s, where 911 was called. As the police and ambulance arrived, RR had shot himself in the stomach and was dragging himself out the front door of our house. He was taken into custody and rushed to the hospital.
That evening, the police called me at my office. I shook uncontrollably and screamed loudly when they began to tell me the news. My mom’s boss (a family friend) and my interior design mentor came and picked me up, and then we went to pick up my brother, still at his friend’s house. By now it was 8 or 9 p.m. at night. I remember it was near dark as we neared where Eric was—just a block from our home. I could see the yellow tape surrounding our house and hear sirens and a helicopter. Our home was no longer that, it was now a spine chilling crime scene.
Eric had been told by one of the policemen that our mom had been killed. Unfortunately, the officer mistakenly told Eric it was our dad (not step-dad) who had killed our mom. Of course, this was very confusing and very upsetting to Eric. One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do was walk in and face a ten year old scared little boy. Eric and Mom were very close, almost inseparable. I remember the look in his eyes and feeling like if only I could change all of this. We did get it clarified that it was RR who had killed Mom, not our dad.
Later that night, we went to stay with our paternal grandparents who lived 45 minutes from our house, where I had to call our dad, my mom’s relatives in Washington state, and other family and friends—to give them the news. Extreme disbelief was present amongst everyone. Up until my parents’ divorce, we were pretty much “A Leave it To Beaver” family; we had experienced no drama, no trauma, no anything; we were just a normal family. When RR came into the picture, this state of normalcy definitely began to change, but up until now, nothing ever like this event happened to anyone in our family. It was only something you saw on the 10 o’clock news.
Immediate concerns were submitting dental records to the coroner’s office for a positive identity match, as none of us could bring ourselves to identify her body. And then choosing a casket and planning a Memorial service here in our town. Later that week, my brother, my mom’s body, and I boarded a plane to Washington, where we decided Mom would be buried, along with older relatives–including her father, grandparents, and aunts/uncles. She had grown up there, gone to high school, and met my dad there (at Fort Lewis during the Vietnam War.) All of her family still lived there. My first task upon arrival was to carefully design a beautiful headstone for the cemetery and plan a funeral and burial.
The day of the funeral was absolutely the saddest day of my life. I can’t tell you what the weather was. I can’t tell you too many details. I remember singing “Amazing Grace” at the church and later watching her casket being lowered into the ground at the cemetery. I remember another burial happening near us, where a 15 year old girl had been killed in a car accident with her boyfriend. Eric and I were blessed to be surrounded by a large, loving family; but that day was just horrible. A lot of that week after her burial is still a blur to me. And Eric hardly remembers any of it.
It was decided that Eric would stay in Washington with aunts and uncles for the summer, while I returned to Florida to sell our mom’s house and find a new place for Eric and I to live. Our relatives begged us to stay and live in Washington, but our lives were in Florida. We wanted to return.
Our dad had an extremely difficult time with our mom’s death. Again, they were married for many years, and he felt some guilt and tremendous grief for what ultimately happened. It was determined that Eric would stay with me, until Dad “could come to grips” with her death.
So, I was 21 years old, returning to Florida to a new life. I sold our mom’s house (we never spent another night there after June 4th), along with most of the contents. A lot of the furniture and other items had blood splattered on them, even after a crime cleaning service had come in. (Three rooms and the hallways were covered in my mom’s blood and RR’s blood.) Most items I just couldn’t stand to see. I only kept her jewelry (to my dismay, I never found her wedding ring from our dad), her china/crystal/silver, and her prized porcelain clown collection. I gave a lot of her clothes and shoes to her sisters and our dad’s sisters. I also had to get rid of our dog Jack. We really did not leave with too much. Eric and I needed a new, fresh start.
After the summer was over, one aunt and uncle brought Eric back to Florida. He, too, wanted to be in Florida with me. We leased a 2 bedroom apartment, and I enrolled him back at his same elementary school, now a fifteen minute car commute. I remember sitting in his school Open House at the beginning of the year. I was now his guardian, at least for now. All of the other parents looked at me, like who is this young girl? She can’t be his mother?!
This soap opera would continue for several years. I won’t go into detail, but I often feared for our safety, thinking RR would come after us. After all, there were 3 pair of handcuffs and 3 sets of rope (for Mom, Eric, and I) found at the house the day she was killed. Even though RR was in jail awaiting trial, I wondered if he would send someone after us. At Eric’s soccer practices and games, I would watch at the field, hoping no one (or RR himself) would come get us. I was always happy when we had to go out of town for Eric’s soccer tournaments, because away I felt safe and free.
One of the nicest things that happened was that Eric’s soccer team organized and sponsored a charity soccer tournament, in our Mom’s name. The proceeds went to Eric’s college fund. This was appreciated and touching. So many caring people helped us during this difficult time.
In my extreme duress, I did make an enormous mistake; I not only broke up with my college boyfriend, but in June 1992 I married my mom’s attorney, twenty years older than me. Hence my new last name Jennings. It is not necessary to speak about this, but only to say I was not in my right mind. This surprisingly lasted for 2 ½ years, when I finally realized this was a huge mistake and ended it. (All of the experts say to never make a large decision within the first year of a death; oh how I wished I would have listened to the experts, and well meaning friends and family.)
In 1993, we endured RR’s criminal trial for first degree murder. We had to hear the details from the two children in the house at the time, and listen to the Assistant State Attorney tell the jury my mom was killed “execution style, literally blowing her head open.” Eric and I both had to testify, but did not stay in the courtroom to see photos of our mom and the crime scene. We also had to see RR again, which was not easy. RR was charged with first degree murder (the jury deliberated for less than a ½ hour) and sentenced him to a life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years. Over the following years, I would get updates from the prison system, every time he would get moved to a new facility. We also filed a wrongful death suit, but although we were awarded a judgement, we never received a penny. But that did not matter to me. As many years went by, I finally began to believe that he would not get out, and that he could not hurt us anymore.
Eric ended up staying with me; I became his legal guardian until he was 18. We shared a lot together, good times and bad times. We struggled some through the years, with trusting people, with normal teenage angst, and with missing our beloved mom. Especially early on, there were some days I laid on the floor in my pajamas and cried all day, not going into work.
But I have to tell you that it was our faith in God that definitely gave us the strength to get through this time. There was no other way. The pain and the loneliness would have been too much. With God’s help, Eric and I both forgave RR, with Eric (around age 18) even corresponding by letters with him in prison. I’m so thankful that we got to forgive him, as RR died in prison in 2000.
Eric and I have many blessings. I married my husband Tom in 1999 and now have three beautiful children. Eric got married to his high school sweetheart last year, and they are expecting their first baby (a girl!) this October. Over the past twenty years, I continually see that God had a purpose for each of our lives, because we too should have been killed that fateful day of June 4, 1991. It was RR’s intent. But God had a bigger plan for Eric and me, and for that we are thankful.
Exodus 50:20 (NIV) became my verse to RR:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) became another important verse to me:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Psalm 121: 1-2 (NIV) is also powerful:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Eric and I still miss our mom. The pain never fully goes away; we both have a forever emptiness that will never be filled. No one will ever love us quite the same way as a mother does. This became very apparent each time I gave birth to my own children, loving my blessed babies so much—while missing my mother like never before. And lamenting that my children would never meet her and know her pure, unconditional love. I also think about her quite frequently, still wondering how it would be, if she were here. I can’t tell you the times I have just wished for one more day with her… just one more day….I look at my five aunts (my mom’s sisters) with their families and wish Eric and I had our mom. I look at a few of my aunt’s hands, and they look just like my mom’s.
But probably the most painful aspect has been watching Eric’s sorrow, as he struggled as a motherless son and even struggles today to remember details of her life. After all, he was just a little boy at the time of her death. Each June 4th is a difficult reminder of our loss, and so is her birthday each year, but overall each of our personal faith in God has helped heal deep wounds.
Again, both Eric and I mainly focus on our blessings. We are thankful for God’s plan, even though it may not make sense—this side of heaven. So I guess that is why I am caught somewhat off guard about these memories and feelings crashing around me, as I soon celebrate my 42nd birthday on August 9th. My mom only received 42 years on earth. (And ironically, my oldest son is 10 years old, the same age as Eric was when Mom was killed.) I still wonder what her dreams were?! The dreams left undeveloped, unfilled.
So now this year, I have really been thinking about my life and what I want my contributions to be. First and foremost, I want to glorify God in all I do. Second, I want to be a loving wife to my husband—for the rest of my life. Third, I want my children to love the Lord and to love life. I want to be the best mother I can to them. And lastly, Lord willing, I want to impact other people’s lives, not just with their interiors, but in their actual lives. I pray that God will continually give me opportunities to help other people, in any way I can.
And to my brother (“son”/friend/business associate) Eric, I want to remind you that Mom loved you so very much. You, too, share her dancing blue eyes and even her “angel kissed” freckles. She was always so proud of you, and was always thankful to have had a baby boy. You truly were the apple of her eye. And both Tom and I are so proud of the man you have become. Your intelligence, perseverance, compassion for others, and profound faith are truly lights for others to see. Mom beams with pride from heaven. And we all look forward to the birth in October of your first born, Baby Kinley. I am excited for you to experience your own sweet family.
And I close with a sincere “Thank you, Mom”, for being a wonderful mom, my friend, and a forever role model. I love you! And Happy Birthday! Today you would have turned 63 years old. I will celebrate with a peanut buster parfait.
And thank you, all, for letting me finally share this untold story.
Written by: Michelle (Miller) Jennings Wiebe, daughter of Betty Ann (Elizabeth) Jessemey Miller