My Mother, Helen McNellis – Writing Our Book

Helen McNellis

Grandma and Blake

July 2013 – Helen meeting her great-grandson Blake McNellis for the first time.

My Mother passed away Sunday morning, December 22, 2013. She was 2 months shy of 99 years of age.

She led a life full of curiosity, wonder, spontaneity, awe and joy over the simplest of things.

If I were to present Mother with a trophy, it would be “World’s Best Listener.”

She would ask the simplest, most profound questions then give you plenty of time to answer.

I lived at home until I was 25 (except for the five summers I worked at the Boy Scout Camp in Northern Wisconsin during high school and college).

When I’d come home late at night, after a date or being out with my friends, Mom and Dad might be up. The three of us would talk a bit then Dad would go to bed so he could get up early for work.

We had two long brown sofas plus three chairs in our living room. Mom would cuddle on one sofa and I’d sprawl out on the other. We would talk for hours.

We’d talk about life. Dreams of what I wanted to be some day. Ideas. Big ideas. She liked to tell me about her dad who was the first mid-western president of the National Restaurant Association. Growing up and spending summers at the lake was worth many long hours of stories she shared.

She could ask the most interesting questions then listen. Just listen.

You know how some people ask a question and before you can respond they ask two or three more questions and don’t give you breathing room to answer?

Not Mom.

She naturally asked one great simple elegant question then LISTENED.

Last spring Pat McNellis (her grandson, my son) and I were visiting her when my youngest son David joined us.

The scene was precious. David would take a photo of Mom with Pat then e-mail me the picture. I’d show the photo to her.

She was like a little girl with her look of astonishment. Absolute joy at the technology she was part of.

Dave and Grandma

April 2013 – Having fun with her grandson David McNellis

Then Pat took a picture of Dave with Mom and repeated the process.

More awe. Questions galore.

Her body wasn’t working well, however her mind and spirit were still clicking.

The final time she was with her four sons was last August. She was diminished and we all knew the end was near, yet her quirky sense of humor was still there.

She wanted to know where my hair went. And she was concerned with how I was doing. Always a Mother. At age 98. “How is MY Jerry doing?” If you’ve read our book, you’ll know that was more than a casual question.

Our family is celebrating Mother’s long and meaningful life as the Matriarch of five generations. She has 53 grand, great and great-great grandchildren. We’re having a celebration in Minnesota in mid-June with her burial Mass.

I am pleased she directed any memorials be sent to the Sisters of St. Francis of Little Falls, Minnesota, who hosted the first Compression Planning Institute almost 4 decades ago.

Three years ago Mom was telling me new details of what happened in the first weeks when I had polio.

She told me of events I wasn’t aware of so I asked her if she’d do a book with me about those scary days. I was too young (2 years old) to remember or appreciate the fear of the early years of what my parents and brothers went through.

You may have read our book “Don’t Pick Him Up: our family’s journey with polio.”

I’m telling you this because if you have a deep desire to do a book about a special person in your life, do it sooner rather than later. Six months after finishing the book, I don’t think Mom’s memory would have been as sharp.

Capture the opportunity when you can. Sure wish I did a book with Dad before he passed away.

It’s been 16 days since Mom died. I’m not ready to read our book or to listen to our hours of recordings; however, I’m thankful I have them.

It was such a journey of love to do the book together. Mother was mentally quite sharp when we did those recordings. Our Saturday morning conversations were such an intimate Mother/son project.

A way for you to know my Mother is her reaction when I asked if she’d do a book with me.

She didn’t say ”I’m 95, I’m too old” or “I’ve never done anything like that before” or “I don’t know how.” Or a host of other things she could have said.


Her response was “What do I have to do?” and “How would we do it? How can I help?”

What a beautiful response and gift to leave the five generations she was the matriarch of…not I’m too old but HOW and What do I need to do to help?

Grandma and family

July 2013 – Pictured from left to right are Mom, Pat, Blake, Logan and Lauryn McNellis.

That was my Mother.

 How We Did the Book

The way we did the book was easy. I’ll share a few hints and the project planning software we used in case you are thinking of doing a similar project for someone special in your life.

We picked a narrow theme. Our family’s experience with polio from when I caught it at age 2 until I had my last surgery at age 12. Everything in the book revolved around that theme and time which made the topic manageable.

I used and recorded interviews (discussions) with Mother, my brothers Jim, Tom and Mike plus my friends Dr. Blaise Favara and Ray White.

It couldn’t have been easier or more enjoyable.

I found people to transcribe the conversations through One transcriber didn’t charge us because she said she found the “story” so interesting.

Once I had the transcripts, my work was ‘cut-and-paste’ the most interesting and relevant parts.

Family members edited for spelling, grammar and inconsistencies.

Pat McNellis handled the layout and technical part of having the book manufactured and distributed by CreateSpace which is owned by

A friend, Brian Cubarney, designed the cover and we had a book.

Mother and I signed copies for all members of our huge family.

She had two cases of them, which she gave to members of the staff and friends at Friendship Village where she lived in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Something I never knew but learned during the project was Mom wanted to be a nurse when she graduated from high school and never pursued it.

When I caught polio she received professional medical training from the Kenney Institute to help me. Every day for years she massaged my back and left leg which I’m convinced made it possible for me to walk.

Where did I get the time to do a book?

Final Polio Book.P65I see four types of time:

  • Type #1: Things I despise doing
  • Type #2: Things I don’t mind doing
  • Type #3: Things I like to do
  • Type #4: Things I love to do

For me it’s not an issue to work in Type 4 time. I talk with Mom and my brothers, Blaise and Ray anyways. All I needed to do was record our conversations.

Assembling the story was interesting, easy and lots of fun – Type 4.

The whole project was a “labor of love” so finding time wasn’t even an issue. I believe if you have something that means as much to you as our book meant to us, then time won’t be an issue for you.

My friend Joyce Wycoff said it best after reading our book. “I love your Mother.”

If you’d like a copy of “Don’t Pick Him Up” send me an e-mail with your snail mail address and I’ll send you a complimentary copy.

After you read it, pass it along. Lots of seniors find it interesting. You might want to donate it to a school library. Mom would like that.

Next to the Atom bomb, polio was the greatest scare this country faced right after World War II.

If you’d like to do a book on someone special in your life and would like to talk about what I experienced doing “Don’t Pick Him Up,” please contact me. It would be a way to honor my Mother by sharing with you.

She would help you but it’s a bit late. She’s up to MUCH MORE GLORIOUS things now.

My best to you for 2014,

Jerry McNellis

P.S. One of the things I’m so proud about my Mother is how pleasant she always was to people.

My brother Tom said to me, next time you’re with Mom watch closely how she treats the staff of Friendship Village.

So into her room comes a nurse…”Judy your sweater is so pretty. It matches your beautiful eyes.”

Then a technician…”Harry, this is my 3rd son Jerry from Pennsylvania. Jerry, Harry is so strong and he carefully protects me when he lifts me into my boot.”

When an aide came in who was a college student Mom would ask how her exams went last week. “Oh Maria, I know you did well. You’re so smart.”

Automatically she had kind things to say to everyone. Everyone. It was in her DNA.

Then she would say, “I can’t believe how nice everyone is to me.”

P.P.S. My brothers Jim, Tom, Mike and I take great pride in the fact we did such an excellent job in selecting our parents.

24 Responses to My Mother, Helen McNellis – Writing Our Book

  1. Janet Boyle January 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    What a beautiful tribute! Thanks, Jerry, for sharing this brief glimpse into your relationship with your mother. She sounds like an amazing person.

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:20 am #

      Janet … Mother touched a lot of people in her gentle, subtle way. Thanks for writing.


  2. Sarah January 9, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    What a beautiful and moving tribute to your mother.

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:23 am #


      Thank you for getting to know my Mother a bit.


  3. Noreen Fredrick January 9, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

    Jerry, I am so sorry for your loss. What a wonderful tribute to her.

  4. Luanne Panacek January 9, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    Jerry, your post is prompting me to read your book again. I may be willing to give it up to someone else if the right person comes along. I know you and I know Pat, a little bit, and I can say without hesitation, “you apples didn’t fall far from that tree”. I know how special you are to me so I can only imagine how tough it is so lose your mom. You and your siblings and all of those grand and great grand children are quite a lasting legacy. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Love. Lu

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:37 am #

      Thanks Lu,

      You and Mother would have enjoyed each other.

      No one other than you ever called me an ‘apple’ before however I’ll accept it in the spirit you offer it.

      Thanks for commenting. Your friendship means a lot.


  5. Reg Goeke January 9, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    I’m very sad for your loss, Jerry, but very happy for the gift your mom gave the world (that would be you!). I read the book a couple years ago and treasure the story. I’ve recommended it to friends, and will continue to do so. Your mother’s curiosity and many kindnesses have clearly become part of the McNellis DNA. I hope to have an opportunity to see you again soon – I thoroughly enjoy your insights.

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:41 am #


      Kind of you to comment. Our family is celebrating Mother’s wonderful life. Imagine what she saw and experienced in her
      almost 99 years.

      She frequently asked ‘why God allowed her to live so long?”

      I’d say , ” Mother you have more to teach us.” And she did right
      up to her final moments.

      Best wishes.


  6. Nan Foltz January 9, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Jerry and family,

    I am honored to have heard about your Mother for some time. There is no question that she shaped lives and she saw the world through eyes that saw wholness and ears that found ways to translate “no” into “here is another path”. Your own ability to listen obviously has it’s roots in your Mother. What a grand project you and she made in writing the book. Her legacy will live on……nan

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:47 am #

      Thanks Nan,

      I wish you and Mother met. She would have adopted you.

      “Jerry…your friend Nan is so intelligent. And so full of spunk.”

      I can hear her say that about you. ‘Spunk’ was a high compliment.

      Talk soon.


  7. Frank January 9, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    WOW, Jerry, what a magnificent and moving tribute to your dear mother.
    Thank you so much for sharing. She was amazing. Now I understand how you became such a nice and great person. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Hope we can meet up soon.

    ALL my best,


    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:49 am #


      Appreciate your kind comments. We are basking in wonderful memories about Mother.


  8. Brian January 9, 2014 at 7:26 pm #


    A wise, generous man once told me that there’s two kind of people in our world; those who see the light, and those who see the dark. That wise man had a VERY wise and generous mother.

    Thank you for sharing such a moving tribute to your mom, Jerry. And thank you, Mrs. McNellis, for giving us Jerry and Pat and their boundless gifts of wisdom and generosity.

    I’m touched I could play such a small but important piece in your book.

    Thank you, my friend.


    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:51 am #


      You are important in the life of my Mother’s # 3 son as well as her grandson Pat.

      Thanks for being there.


  9. Carrie January 9, 2014 at 10:03 pm #

    Dear Jerry,

    What a wonderful tribute to such a wonderful woman! Look at the number of people she has touched in her life, in so many ways! While I have read the book and this tribute, I never had the pleasure of meeting her. However, in all of the years I have known you, you always told me stories of your mother, and how influencial she (and your father) have been in your life. In turn, they have had an influence in my life, and I am so grateful. She raised an amazing family, and I am honored to know her and receive the benefit of her wise council through these stories and through you and Pat and the things you have taught me.
    Much love,

    • Jerry January 18, 2014 at 8:56 am #

      Thank you my dear friend Carrie,

      If you and Mother ever met I can hear
      the laughter.

      She would love your spirit.

      My best to Jim.

      Your PA Buddy,


  10. Jack Rearick January 10, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    Jerry, first thing this morning I checked my email and found your message. I am simultaneously saddened for your loss, and both delighted and moved by your your beautiful and loving tribute to her…it says a lot about both of you. My friend Marcia and I talk about “old souls”, your mother was an “old soul” as is her son. She obviously was wise from a young age and a very kind and compassionate being. Although I never met her, I feel that I know her through you, and therefore am honored and humbled to have met both of you.

    Warm Regards and Sympathy to you and your family my friend.


  11. Karla Hibbert-Jones January 10, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    Thank you for sharing the loving memories of your mom. I can’t even imagine how many lives she influenced in a positive way! I didn’t know her but the way she led her life is an inspiration to me. God bless you and your family. I look forward to seeing you soon. ~Karla

  12. David K Fortt January 10, 2014 at 12:11 pm #


    My prayers and condolences go out to you and your family. Thank you for sharing your loss with us in such a “Jerry” fashion. It comes as a valuable lesson.

    It seems that no matter how long oour loved-ones live, we long for just one more day, one more conversation with them. That in itself is a precious gift.

    I want to end by saying “blessings on you” but I have to also acknowledge that that has already happened!

    Blessings on you.

  13. Jim Norman January 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    Thank you for sending your memoir of your mother. She had such great impact. I’m inspired and determined to follow your lead in upholding others in writing about them and their accomplishments.
    Thanks. We are studying several books on “story.” I remember your excellent writing process on use if compression planning in law cases, etc.

  14. Michel Neray January 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm #


    Every day for three days, I read your email about your mother’s passing and clicked ‘unread’ to make sure I would come back to it. Thank you for reminding me of what’s truly important in life.

  15. Deanna Boone January 16, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Jerry, you inspire. ‘Nuf said.

  16. Vicki Jeppesen February 14, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    God blessed your family with such a loving and kind mother/grandmother. May He continue to bless your family, Jerry. I know how much your Mom meant to you. Thank you for sharing her through your book. Beautiful!

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