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From An Incredible Teacher, Some Unforgettable Lessons

By Bill Coburn

Click on photos to enlarge


Rose Marie Coburn, my mother, pictured at left in her senior picture, was born on March 3, 1925 and passed away on July 11, 2005.  She lived 80 good years, and 3 bad months.  She was diagnosed in May with pancreatic cancer, which had spread to her liver.  At the time of her diagnosis, she had not been feeling well for several weeks, and had begun to lose weight at an alarming rate.


I confess I don’t know much about my Mom’s early years.  I know she had an older sister, Margaret, (pictured below right on the right, when Mom was 9 months old) and a younger brother Bill.  I know her father was also named Bill, and that he had been a prominent businessman in the small town of Riverside, New Jersey, where her family lived.  I know he was a member of the Board of Directors of the local Kiwanis, had been active in the Knights of Columbus at the local parish, and that he died of a heart attack at an early age, just 47 years old.  I know that his brother, Jim, had stepped up and been a big help to my Mom’s family as my grandmother took over the liquor store that had until then been run by my grandfather.  I know that she enjoyed going to “the shore” and someplace called “Dredge Harbor.”  I know that she had friends from her high school days who remained her friends until her death.  I know she married John Coburn on June 7, 1947, and in March of 1948, she had their first daughter, Margaret, who was more commonly known as Peggy.  Peggy was the first of six daughters in a row, a streak that ended when I was born.  After me came another son, another daughter, and another son.


But most of what I know about my Mom comes from the second half of her life, from the years that I’ve been around.  And what I know about her is this.  She was a heckuva woman. 


Mom grew up in an era where most moms were stay at home Mom’s, and she was no different.  She was never employed after the kids came, and I say it that way because it would be totally inappropriate to say she never worked after the kids came.  She most definitely worked.  I remember noticing early in my childhood that she had a work routine.  Monday was laundry day.  Tuesday was ironing day, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there was house cleaning to be done.  Every day the kids needed lunches for school, every night dinner had to be made.  She knew who liked what, and if you didn’t like tomatoes, your sandwich never had tomatoes on it.  If you did like them, your sandwich always had them.  Every Sunday morning, after church, we would have bacon and eggs with toast.  Cooking eggs for twelve couldn’t be done all at once, so kids would be called in order as their breakfast was ready.  And we got our eggs the way we liked them, if you didn’t like sunny side up, you could have them scrambled.


My mom was a woman who spent 7-1/2 years of her life pregnant.  Between March 1948 and October, 1958, she had seven children.  When American Graffiti and Happy Days swept the nation with nostalgia, and kids were wearing their parents’ clothes to school, my mom was asked where her clothes from the fifties were and she said she got rid of them all.  They were maternity clothes.  She had teenagers in her household from 1961 to 1985, including as many as 7 at one time, during the turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 


I learned many valuable lessons from my Mom (pictured on the left with Aunt Margaret at Mom's 80th birthday in March), lessons I’ve only truly begun to appreciate as I’ve gotten older and realized how special my Mom was, and what a remarkable woman she was to have reared ten children, and, for the most part, kept a peaceful household.  Without my Mom’s supervision, the house would definitely have descended into complete and utter chaos.  I always thought my parents were strict, because my friends didn’t have the restrictions placed on them that we did.  Yet as an adult, I realize that those restrictions were put in place, not just because it was in our best interests to have limits, but because without them, there would have been no order or control, and the only way this family was going to survive with as many different personalities as there were in the house, was if there was order.


I can’t begin to go into all the valuable things I learned from my Mom, but there are a few lessons that stand out in my mind.  Some of the lessons had nothing to do with keeping order.  I remember when I was in fifth grade, there was a girl that I had a crush on, but she was always kind of mean to me.  Then one day she took my baseball mitt and wouldn’t give it back to me.  Took it home after school with her.  Didn’t bring it with her to school the next day, or the next.  I was pretty upset, as baseball was pretty important to me then, and on top of that, this girl that I liked so much obviously didn’t return my feelings, because she was being so mean to me.  Mom pointed out to me that if I really liked this girl, I should be happy.  Because the reason she was being mean to me was now obvious, at least to my Mom.  If she wasn’t bringing my mitt to me, I was going to have to go to her house to get it back, so she could see me away from school.  Mom said this proved that she wasn’t being mean to me because she disliked me, she was being mean because she liked me.  Mom taught me then that things aren’t always what they seem.


When I was in sixth grade, I had surgery.  I remember the day Mom was holding my hand as I went through some pretty terrible pain after the surgery.  I remember the pain was so bad, that at one point, I said to my Mom, “this hurts so bad, sometimes I wish I was just dead.”  I will always remember how horrified my mother was that I would say this, and she jumped all over me.  “Don’t you dare talk like that.  Do you know how many people there are that would give anything to live, but don’t have that choice because they are sick?  This pain will go away, but for a lot of people it doesn’t.  Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again”.  I felt really bad about her obvious disappointment with me, and I learned a valuable lesson - to appreciate what I have, even when things could be better.


As I got older and entered the work force, my Mom continued to teach me lessons.  I was talking with her one day about a person that I worked with, and how it drove me crazy that this person was constantly breaking the rules, and making everyone else work harder, and never got caught.  I said that I was thinking about talking to my boss, and making her aware of what was going on, as I knew that the boss wouldn’t tolerate such behavior and would eliminate my problem.  Mom (pictured above right with her brother Bill Barr and his wife Grace) asked me if what this person was doing was so wrong that he’d be fired.  I said yes, I thought so.  She said “If this person is always breaking the rules, don’t you think your boss is going to eventually catch him?  I said yes, and she said “Well then let your boss catch him.  If somebody is going to eventually hang themself you don’t need to be the one tightening the noose.”  That was an important workplace lesson for me to learn, and I learned it from a woman who’d been out of the employment work force for more than 30 years at the time.


Long before I became a parent, I learned a very important parenting lesson from my Mom.  One of my older sisters had a young child who had been hurt, and had called Mom in tears to ask what to do, as until then she’d never had to deal with a child in serious pain.  As Mom and I talked about it later, she told me that the first thing my sister had needed to do was pull herself together.  “When a child that young sees that you’re scared, and they’ve never seen you scared before, can you imagine how scared they are going to be?  You can’t let them see you be scared, for their sake”.


Another thing I learned from her is that you do what you have to do.  That’s what she did when my father was transferred by General Electric to California, for 1 to 3 years (he was told at the time).  My mom left her family, her friends, her small town, her comfort zone, her way of life, to move to California.  Small town Riverside, to suburban Los Angeles. (The picture at left shows us shortly after we moved to California in 1966). That’s a huge adjustment. My mom didn’t drive, which hadn’t been much of a problem in small town New Jersey, where she had friends and family who could help when needed.  But in California, she knew no one.  Every day, my dad went to work, Mom was left at home, frequently with no transportation available.  With ten kids, there are always emergencies popping up.  And at first, until she got to know some of the neighbors, Mom had no way to get anywhere when help was needed.   Yes, my sisters were getting to driving age, but even when they had their license, they weren’t always around.  But Mom handled this big life change without missing a beat.  I suspect her friends and family would tell a different story, she must have confided her fears to them.  But we kids never saw it.    As she said in the previous lesson I discussed, she wouldn’t let us see her scared, for our sakes. 


When my Mom was diagnosed with cancer, she was still teaching that lesson.  Several of us kids were there, none of us young children by any stretch of the imagination, and when confronted with one of the scariest things that can confront a person, a diagnosis of a form of cancer that is always fatal, Mom didn’t let us see her scared.  I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something along the lines of “Well, that’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s kind of what I expected.”


Over the next two months, we saw her go from being our Mom, to being our Mom, dying.  We saw her lose weight, lose her mobility, lose her freedom to do and go as she pleased, lose her ability to eat, lose her ability to sit up, lose her ability to stay awake for any length of time, lose her ability to express herself as she would like, even lose her ability to keep her eyes open for more than a few seconds, because it just took too much effort.  But she never lost her sense of humor, joking with us even in her final hours.  She never lost her sense of self, doing her best to look her best for us and her grandchildren.  She never lost her ability to encourage us when we needed it.  She never lost her ability to love, as she expressed her love to all of us in her final days.  Especially her grandchildren, as her eyes would light up when they came in the room, and even when she was exhausted and resting, she went out of her way to talk with the grandkids, encouraging them to work hard at things they were involved with, and asking them to let her know how things had gone the next time she saw them.


And she never lost her ability to teach us.  At one point in the progression of her disease, I was frustrated, because I felt that she had stopped fighting.  What I didn’t realize was that she was at a point where she was fighting, but her disease was stronger, and it was winning.  As she moved to the next level, I recognized again that she was still fighting.  She was fighting to spend time with us, fighting to retain her dignity through the trying times, fighting to keep her mental alertness, fighting to give us an example of how to die with dignity, and I realized eventually, with acceptance.  She didn’t fight death, I don’t think, I think she accepted it, fully.  But she wanted to do her best, while she was here, to give us an example of courage and strength. 


My older sister Eileen and I were in the room with her when she passed.  She died peacefully, stopped breathing a couple times for 10-15 second intervals, re-started, then stopped and finally, didn't re-start.  No signs of distress, no coughing or gagging, just a cessation of respiration.


Nine of her kids were there in the house, as were the spouses of several of them.  Six of her grand-children were there.  The Hospice nurse told family at the house that afternoon that she estimated 24-48 hours, and she didn't think it was 48.  So we all got called and all who lived in the area got to go say goodbye.  Mom couldn't communicate verbally (difficult for a week or so, not really at all since the day before her death), but we all knew what she wanted to say, in part because of things she's told us in the past few weeks, and in part, because she was who she was, and we knew her and how she felt.  Those who were not there, had been there recently. 


A few hours before she passed, a recently retired priest from her parish came by, and almost all of those mentioned above gathered in her room with her as he read scripture and led us in prayer.  Haven't done much praying in many years, but after hearing the Hail Mary once through, got the words right when it was said again.  Eileen said a few words of thanks, and when the priest was done, Eileen said I feel like we should sing something.  I suggested (to my side of the room) a song that I knew she loved hearing the girls sing in harmony, though it was fairly inappropriate.  Then Eileen started singing a song that a couple people seemed to know the words to, and several of us looked at each other and shrugged shoulders.  We felt a little foolish when it got to the chorus and we all realized (and most joined in) it was "How Great Thou Art."  Far more appropriate than "The Cruel War is Raging."  So Eileen done good.


The Coburn Family in March, 2005 at Mom's 80th birthday party.  Photo by Karen Hamman Photography


Anyway, I think it was a good way for her to spend her last few hours, surrounded by the family she had devoted her life to.  We'd have liked to have been able to communicate better with her, but it wasn't to be. 


The day of her death, my sister Kathy’s friend Cindy, from her high school days, came by with dinner, after hearing what the hospice nurse had said.  Most of the family hadn’t seen Cindy in years, but she was there for us when we needed her.  After Mom passed, she said she’d spend the night at the house with Kathy.  Turns out she’d brought clothes, just in case.


Last night, my sister Sheila’s ex-boyfriend stopped by the house.  They dated in the sixties, and he has rarely been seen by the family since the break-up.  Last night, he brought a full sheet of lasagna, antipasto salad, garlic bread, but most importantly, his love and concern for my Mom’s family.


When we were discussing funeral service plans, the representative from Douglass and Zook was concerned that my sister’s request to have her parish choir perform at the service would meet resistance from the musical director at the church where the service is to be held.  When the choir director spoke with my sister, there was no hesitation.  “I’ll set up the mikes.  You treat it like it’s your parish.  You know what to do.  More families should support themselves and their parents like your family has with your Mom.  If there’s anything you need, you call me, and I’m there.”


If you lead a good life, and you raise your kids well, good things will happen, even in the darkest of times, and when you least expect them.  Even in death, my Mom is reinforcing lessons she’s been teaching us for years.



Rose Marie (Barr) Coburn, an incredibly strong and patient woman believing in God and family, passed away Monday, July 11, 2005, after battling pancreatic cancer.  She was born in Riverside, NJ, on March 3, 1925 to the late William J. and Rosemary (Schwartz) Barr.


Rose Marie is survived by 7 daughters - Peggy Kiessling and husband Paul, of Medford, New Jersey, Eileen Nurre and husband Joe, of Upland, CA, Sheila Bush and husband David, of Placerville, CA, Kathleen Coburn of Duarte, CA, Maureen McAdam and husband Wayne, of Duarte, CA, Rosemary Burnett and husband Bob, of Sierra Madre, CA, and Regina Coburn and husband Jim Dunn, of Azusa, CA; 3 sons Bill Coburn and wife Katie, of Sierra Madre, CA, Pat and wife Kim, of Ontario, CA, and Jay Coburn and wife Chris, of Matteson, IL, 23 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren, 1 brother - William Barr of Cinnaminson, N.J., and 1 sister - Margaret Dmochowski of Riverside, NJ.. Her husband, John E. Coburn, predeceased her in 1993 after 46 years of marriage.


She was a member of Immaculate Conception parish for 39 years and will be missed by everyone who knew her, especially her after-church breakfast friends.

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