Meet Virginia

My mom died a year ago. A few weeks before that I asked her to promise to send me a sign, a symbolic shout-out — something to let me know she was okay after she left the earth. She was feeling discouraged that particular day.  Her usually upbeat personality, hearty laugh, and glowing optimism were dimmed by her declining strength and the indignities of the final stage of cancer. But she got a visible charge out of my request, and with a naughty twinkle in her eye she agreed to find a way to reach me. 

Those last days with my mom were heartbreaking, but oddly perfect.  I miss that time, not just because it was the last time spent with her (and it certainly wasn’t the best time with her) but because life felt so real — and also unreal. Time and space evaporated. My purpose every moment was absolutely certain. I existed only to support and witness my mother’s last passage; there was nowhere else to be, no guilt that I wasn’t doing something I should be doing. After she took her last breath I held her, and felt her energy fly through me.

The next day, I had a run on the beach. Devastated and breathless as I finished, I turned to walk to my car, but had an impulse to glance once more towards the ocean. I gasped as the biggest herd of dolphins I’ve ever seen, 50 or 60 of them, bumped and glided joyously through the water.

Then, driving home with the children along PCH, a spotlight shone through the clouds, casting a perfectly round, shimmering pool of light on the ocean. I knew it was her.

My mom was generous with her love and goodwill.  Before she became too weak to drive a car she delivered Meals on Wheels. In her early seventies she volunteered for the Women’s Health Initiative, and ended up being one of the women in the famous study that got breast cancer from taking estrogen and progesterone.  She’d had an uneventful menopause and would never have taken hormones except as a way to help others. After her breast cancer diagnosis she found out that she’d indeed been given the hormones, not the placebo. The tamoxifen she was treated with for breast cancer may well have caused the endometrial cancer that spread to her lungs and eventually killed her. Still, she never lost faith in doctors.

My mom was almost always PTA president, and everyone, including all my friends at school adored her. Her happiness rubbed off on people. Friends would tell me they spotted her driving alone in her car, grinning.

Even as a cancer patient she kept us laughing, spreading her joy to doctors, nurses, orderlies, everyone around her.

She agreed to my suggestion to get a Facebook account a month before she died. For her status she wanted me to write, “Enjoying every minute.”

One of my favorite stories about my mom in her later years was her friendly response to a solicitous phone call from a dating service. When she was asked, “So, what kind of men do you like?” My mom replied, “I like younger men…around 79.” She left the caller in stitches.

A few days after my mom died she gave me the clearest shout-out of all. I’d had an unexplainable urge to sort through a box of old letters, some dating back to grade school. My stomach churned as I delved into my past, reading with amusement, embarrassment, sadness, regret.  I picked up a crinkled yellow post-it and stared for a moment before taking in the words in my mother’s handwriting:

Your the



I have no memory of her giving me this note and no clue why she wrote it. Sometimes, when I feel underappreciated by my children (teenagers have a way of doing that!) I read it as, “You’re the greatest mom.” My mom thought I was a good mother, and told me so almost every time we spoke. I know she found RIE parenting a little strange at first, but she soon recognized the positive effect it had on me and my family. It was different from the way she had done things, but she was open-minded and perceptive. She embraced it.

I think she would have been proud of this blog. And, though it is dedicated to my mentor Magda Gerber, it is powered by the passionate connection I still have with Virginia, my mother. Everything I do from the heart belongs to her. It always will.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Lynn Miner says:

    Wow. This made me cry my eyes out But, I feel soooo blessed that I had the experience of Virginia as my “second mom”. At a time when my own family seemed “not-normal” (I guess they call that dysfunctional now) I was always welcomed in your home. I remember sitting around the big round table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I remember being amazed at the love, sharing, laughter and tenderness at the Johnson family. I will always cherish those times ! Thank you Janet…and Thank you Virginia!!!!

  2. Roseann Murphy says:

    Thank you for this sharing this love story. I am certain your Mother is bursting with pride as she shares these moment with you. I met your Mom on only a few occasions—one that stands out is Charlotte’s birthday party. Charlotte was just a wee girl… many children were seated at an art table by the window, if my memory serves me, and in the middle of the group sat your Mother…a lovely smile on her face, assisting with the project, making everyone feel comfortable and included. Your work and your children reflect the love she shared with you. Thank you again for sharing these special moments.

  3. Janet, this is such a beautifully written and touching tribute to your Mother. I never knew her, but I feel like she certainly lives on through you. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Felicia Meyer says:

    This is so beautiful, Janet! I can see your mother’s beautiful smile and feel her joy just thinking about her. She was a blessing to all of us.

  5. Kathleen Mazzola says:

    This is beyond beautiful Janet. I loved finding out some of the fabulous qualites your mom possessed.

    We couldn’t be more similar in our adoration of our mothers. We are so blessed to have them in our lives, even now. And it doesn’t surprise me that our mothers shared some wonderful qualities as well.

    I carry in my purse, a note that my mom attached to a package she sent to me when I was living in New York…

    God Bless you
    Love Mother

    When I need her, as I journey through my life, whether I’m feeling joyful or sad, accomlished or not, and I just want to be able to go to her and feel her hand on my hand, listen to her wisdom, be mischievous with her, or hear her head-thrown-back-unabashed-laughter….I read her note and remember that my mom loved me and asked God to bless me, in all good ways, and through all of life’s unexpected occurences.

    So many women, and men, don’t have the kind of mothers we had, and their hearts are hurting them deep down inside.

    What you’re doing for parents and children because of Magda Gerber, and how you recieved her teachings, can change relationships, for the better, between moms and dads and their children.

    Maybe, if women and men, who were not as fortunate as we were, to have the kinds of moms we had, could read Magda’s books, maybe they could learn how to raise the wounded child within themseleves into healthy, happy and accomplished adults.

    Everyone wants an enlighted mommy,
    not everyone has one.
    My heart goes out to those who don’t.

    Thanks for the journey you’ve embraced.
    Your mom must have prayed for you as well.

  6. This is really quite beautiful. To have been loved… and to love ones’ parent is indeed a blessing and joy.

  7. Barbara Elder says:

    When I need to feel my mother close to me I wear her ring. It has seen me through some testy situations. From now on when I see dolphins I will think of your mother and though I didn’t know her I feel grateful to her for you. Thank you Janet, for a lovely story.

  8. Charlotte says:

    This is the most beautiful thing I have ever read. I love you Mommy – Grandma still inspires me everyday. I know she would be so proud of you. xo

  9. housewife bliss says:

    I loved reading this, your love for your mother is so honest and true — I just know she felt your love. The signs she left you are beautiful, they must have filled you with such love, sadness and joy at the same time.

  10. You were very fortunate Janet to have had the opportunity to have such a wonderful relationship with your mom. And especially to have been able to be with her during her “last” journey. I believe that life is eternal so somewhere – somehow your mom is still on some journey or other!

    I was not fortunate to have been with my mom when she died. I was with her most of the time during her last illness due to cancer. I was on my way to see her when I got the news of her death. I took it quite hard… I was very young. I missed having a mother during my early 20’s and my adult life. I never had the luxury of being able to talk woman stuff and get guidance. But her love and joy to do things for others became part of me. One day while cooking a meal, I looked down at my hands and realized that they were my moms hands… it was she who taught me how to cook that particular meal.

    I had the pleasure of knowing your mother. I liked her the moment I met her. I even called your mom once in awhile. I was angry at how she became ill yet she remained cheerful..and you flowed through it all being the beautiful Janet,the mom, wife, and daughter!And I know it wasn’t easy AT ALL! The thing that I will always remember about your mom was her smiling face and open arms…and her joy when she was with her grandchildren.. and all those trips with her grandkids!
    I’m quite respectful of people and their family life and don’t like to intrude.. especially around holidays – which I view as a time to be with family. But the Christmas just before your mom passed away, I made the determination to bring my little gifts not before Christmas like I usually did, but on Christmas day… because I knew your mom would be there and I knew it would most likely be the last time I saw her. I was able to hug her and talk to her. Even with all that she was going through, she managed to stay smiling and cheerful. She looked beautiful!
    I thank you Janet for first of all being you and sharing –
    and for your beautiful family!

  11. I was finally able to read all your wonderful comments just now. For some reason, I needed a little bit of distance before I could really look.

    My heart is bursting with gratitude to all of you for your blasts of love to me and Virginia!!!

  12. Magdalena Palencia says:

    Finally I did turn the computer on and there was this lady full of life..
    I have to tell you that after seeing the picture on your blog I believe that She will be among us forever.
    Your mother was a wonderful human being and she left such a path for us to imitate. I feel honored that I met her..

  13. Janet, what a beautiful tribute. What a blessing to have such a wonderful relationship and to know such love in your life. Thinking of you.

  14. Ruth Fidino says:

    My Mom always told me I was a good mother too. Even though she died several years ago I can still hear her telling me I’m a good Mom. That reassurance is the best gift ever.

    1. Ruth, thank you and I wholeheartedly agree. Is there anyone who does not crave the approval of her mother? We are blessed.

  15. That is a beautiful story Janet. I never met your mom but I have to imagine I can see much of her through you.

    I also think one day you will awake to post-its all over the house, of that I have no doubt.

    I have never discussed with you your faith, but I believe I read once that Mike described you a mother who leads with spirituality. In any case, it is my faith system according to scripture, that no matter the state of our body at the time of our passing, God allows us no pain. Inside He is there to care for us, to shield us, even while the naked eyes around us cannot see Him.

    I think it is wonderful that you had her for so long and miss her so much. Both are testiment of blessings, one is for you, the other for her. Our mothers never really leave though, they are there in our thoughts, our contemplations and our decisions. That is why mothers are set aside from all other of God’s creations.

    1. Ed, thank you for your incredible kindness and this lovely sentiment. I’ll be rereading this one.:)

  16. Bernadette says:

    Janet – This is the posting that made me such a fan of your work and understand why I always felt a connection to you. I also lost my mom to cancer and it’s unconscionable indignities. My mom was an undeniable force. She led a life filled with good and hard work. She was humble, spiritual and filled with an inner light. Like you, I know that we strive to be the similar models of love and compassion for our children. xoxoxoxo

    1. Thank you, Bernadette. This explains why I have admired you as a mom and why you have always felt like family to me. xoxoxoxooxo

  17. George Fogelson says:

    I loved your tribute. I too believe that people send us signs. At my cousin Vera’s funeral the rabbi said “Vera will make herself known by the presence of a white feather.” Two weeks later my wife and I were sitting with my friend and telling her about Vera. All of a sudden I saw my wife was holidng a white feather and she had no idea how it got in her hand.

    1. I love that! Thanks, George. I’ll never forget seeing a New York Yankee baseball cap in the middle of the street on Malibu Canyon just after my dear friend Stuart died of cancer. He always wore one.

  18. Lori Upton Heilbrun says:

    I remember your mom, Janet. I remember how much my own mother liked her and regarded her as a strong PTA president and a kind woman. My mom could be on the shy side and your mom always treated her with respect and appreciation for whatever contributions she made to PTA.
    As someone that came from a “normal” family…(pretty functional and loving) and now lives in a “next to normal” family, I know what it is like to feel underappreciated and frustrated. I am glad you were able to gain so much from having a loving household with a mother that appreciated you and taught you to appreciate others. I miss my mother terribly and look forward to seeing her again. At her funeral, a yellow swallowtail butterfly landed on her casket. I’ve seen “that butterfly” at various times since her death> usually times when I am emotional, including my brother’s wedding, graduations or just times when I’m sad. It always makes me think of her now and wonder if she’s trying to let me know she’s with me.
    I will use two post it notes today to share some love with my two girls.
    Thank you so much for your story. Your mom must be grinning.:)

  19. Polly Elam says:


    I needed to read this today for many, many reasons… Perhaps Virginia led me here… a shout out from both of us… you are making a difference…. especially in my life. Thank you for all you do. You are one of my heroes…

    1. Polly, I’m speechless. You have no idea how much I appreciate your encouragement today. You have been one of my heroes for a really long time. Thank you for the loving shout-out! And sometime soon I’ll share about the signs my mom has sent in the last year….they’re pretty amazing…

  20. beautiful post! thank you for writing it.

  21. I can tell she was a beautiful person and a good mother (my sister) by looking at her daughters.

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