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updated: 1/31/2013 5:24 AM

Mom 86s fear of our family's fatal birthday curse

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  • During this dinner out two months ago, Mom and I both managed smiles even though we knew our family's deadly 86th-birthday curse was looming.

      During this dinner out two months ago, Mom and I both managed smiles even though we knew our family's deadly 86th-birthday curse was looming.
    Courtesy of Cheryl terHorst

  • Since this photo was taken outside Wrigley Field after a Cubs game, my mom has benefitted from some life-improving surgeries and just became the longest-living woman in her family's history by celebrating her 86th birthday. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich has not fared as well.

      Since this photo was taken outside Wrigley Field after a Cubs game, my mom has benefitted from some life-improving surgeries and just became the longest-living woman in her family's history by celebrating her 86th birthday. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich has not fared as well.
    Courtesy of Cheryl terHorst

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My sisters, Sally and Nancy, and I assured Mom that our family has no deadly 86th-birthday curse. Mom, an intelligent, well-read, modern woman, knows the idea of a curse is complete bunkum, a silly superstition, something best left to delusional Cubs fans who blame the "curse of the billy goat" for the Cubs' century of failure. Still …

In the year leading up to Mom's 86th birthday on Jan. 28, the curse crept into our conversations. When we would talk about plans for 2013 and beyond, Mom would beg off.

"Well," she would say, "let's just wait and see."

She didn't say, "Well, let's just wait and see if I die because of our family's deadly 86th birthday curse," but that is what she meant. For Mom, the brief journey from age 85 to 86 came with an ominous history.

Mom's mother died less than a month before she would have turned 86. A woman knows when she's approaching the age when her mother died. It's a milestone. If her mother dies a month before her 86th birthday, what right does the daughter have to make it past her 86th birthday?

Nonsense, we kids told Mom. Just because Grandma Schembs died in the month before her 86th birthday doesn't mean that you will die in the month before your 86th birthday. Grandma died during surgery for an aneurysm. You are in much better shape than Grandma was at this age, we told Mom.

Then Mom reminded us of her oldest sister's death.

Frances died of cancer just 26 days before she would have turned 86. Two female relatives dying on the cusp of turning 86 is a coincidence, nothing more, we said.

Then Mom reminded us that her sister Harriette died of heart problems in the month before her 86th birthday. That's all three deceased women in Mom's immediate family dying in the month before their 86th birthdays. In the newspaper world, three of anything is a trend.

Still not a curse, as there is no such thing as a curse, we reassured Mom. But I suspect Sally and Nancy started doing the math in their heads to figure out exactly when they'd be a month short of turning 86. We couldn't help but wonder if Mom's family carried a gene that automatically pulled the plug before a woman reached 86. If automobiles and toaster ovens can break down the day after their warranties expire, why not Schembs women?

Wait, it gets worse, Mom said. Actually, the family curse crosses family and gender lines. Mom's mother-in-law also died shortly before she would have turned 86. Her sister-in-law Betty died right before she turned 86. And this July, our Uncle Frank, Mom's last surviving brother-in-law, died a few months before he would have turned 86.

We reminded her that her oldest brother, our Uncle Spud, is 93. We floated the theory that even if the Grim Reaper were scheduled to pay a visit right before Mom turned 86, she had managed to confound the warranty agreement by getting new body parts. While Mom took a nearly half-century hiatus from hospitals after the birth of my little brother, Bill, in 1962, she's been living a "new and improved" life as an octogenarian.

The pig valve that keeps her heart working is less than 5 years old. The artificial knee is only 4. The lenses put in her eyes after the cataract surgery are less than 2. The plate holding her once-broken wrist in place is just a few months old. November's carpal tunnel surgery on her left hand was so successful that she was able to return to her role as a drummer in the community band in time for the Christmas concert, so she had the surgery on her right hand before her 86th birthday. Throw in all the new body parts and some dental work, and Mom's composite age drops so far below the curse age she might no longer qualify for an AARP card.

My sisters, as has become a custom in recent years, flew into town to take Mom out to a fancy dinner the weekend before her birthday. I drove to the farm Monday on Mom's actual 86th birthday, during which she drove 44 miles round trip to pay the farm taxes and treat me to lunch. Mom is 86, looks great, remains active and is going to another birthday dinner later this week with her younger friends.

Now that she has vanquished our family's 86th-birthday curse, Mom, always a trendsetter and a leader in the local arts community, might want to start a new tradition. Maybe she can be the first woman in our family to celebrate her 100th birthday, perhaps while wearing a Cubs World Series Champions hat.

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