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On love, loss and learning: ‘Mema will always be with me’

Editor’s note: Our community recently lost Sarah Underwood Jackson-Petrillo — a beloved neighbor, friend, wife, mother and Mema. Sarah welcomed me to Bradenton with open arms almost two decades ago, and literally threw open her doors for me and my little dog Joey. At her celebration of life, the church was filled with people who have been loved, hugged and saved by Sarah. But none more than her granddaughter Tara Jarvis. Tara’s eulogy was perfect — pushing us to be better people, just as her Mema would have wanted. I’m humbled to share it with you here. Joan Krauter, executive editor

Thank you, everyone, for coming to rejoice in the loving memory of Sarah Underwood Jackson-Petrillo.

As one of my favorite writers says, “You must not come lightly to the blank page.”

And as some of you may not know, I am an aspiring writer, having sent submissions to such publications as the New York Times, albeit swiftly met with rejection emails.

Tara Jarvis Provided photo

Even though Mema was more adept than me and probably all of you at writing emails, I feel confident Mema would never send me a rejection letter.

So I come before God and Mema, and all of you confidently with a sense of writerly duty; heavy to the blank page.

And that is the Mema that we all know. Always accepting and unwavering in her support, no matter how good or bad.

She was my Mema, the woman who raised me and took such good care of my mother.

There was a time when I was going through typical adolescent angst when I believed my life was SO hard.

You know that phase where you think your parents are always wrong?

Well, in recent years I was finally able to admit that my grandmother was always right (well, most of the time . . . I think it’s OK to eat red meat every once in a while, Mema).

And in that time I realized how much harder my grandmother’s life was than mine will ever be.

Here was a woman who put all of her needs aside to be a lifelong caretaker for others.

Mother, grandmother, mother again to me and my sister Erica.

She was an amazing friend, niece, aunt, spouse; in every capacity an accepting and unwaveringly supportive force of a woman to be reckoned with.

And you know what I finally realized? She never asked for any of it back. She was tough, but she always had me thinking. I’ll never forget the Golden Rule being a huge part of her life. Remember that ol’ saying? “Do unto others?”

Well, she did unto others selflessly. She gave and she gave and she gave and never once asked for it back.

Here was a woman who gave in such a way that didn’t inflate egos, but acknowledged your strengths and your weaknesses and would support you through both with zero judgment.

Here was a woman who lifted you up when you needed to know your worth, balancing you out when you needed grounding. Like a yin and a yang.

Mema was the yin to my yang. And the yin to all of your yangs, and that is why you’re here right now. Not to mourn the life of your spouse, mother, aunt, cousin, friend, but to celebrate the life of your other half in whatever capacity she was for you.

Even though goodbyes can be hard, I feel like I could have all the monies in the world and I will never feel as rich as I do in my heart right now.

I feel rich in independence, I feel rich in self-worth — thanks to Mema.

I also feel rich in family because you are ALL, now, my family.

To the Petrillo family, I cannot tell you how happy I am that you are in my life. I couldn’t ask for a better second family.

Dom, I remember the day Mema told me you were getting married. We were driving up to Perry to put flowers on my grandfather’s grave (Rest In Peace) and Mema told me she had something she wanted to tell me before anybody else.

And she asked for my blessing. I shouted with joy.

Thank you for (as we millennials call it) “blowing” up her telephone some 13 years ago with your persistence until she finally answered the phone.

In all of her stubbornness, I could never have forgiven her if she had missed an opportunity with a man like you. I hope one day I have something as special.

Remember the amazing Rumi once said: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along.”

Before I leave you, let me give you this final story:

A mere three weeks ago when my world felt rocked with the news of Mema’s imminent future, I found myself on the train one gloomy Tuesday night. Despite the news, I continued to look for the silver lining; for God’s little reminders that life was going to be OK whether it be the morning I got a free muffin at Dunkin Donuts, someone giving up their seat on the subway, or the Gators being almost as bad at football this year as the Seminoles are…

But on this one Tuesday, Oct. 17 to be exact, the last day I communicated with Mema, I was feeling especially lonely and overwhelmed on my way home from a client’s apartment late at night. An older gentleman who could have been my grandfather sat down next to me on the train, and after a few minutes he noticed the pamphlet I was reading from the Morgan Library (my favorite museum in New York City).

Well, this man struck up a conversation about art and life and the tribulations that go hand in hand with the love of such a city as New York. He spoke of his family, and we kept each other company as we only later realized the train had been stalled for a good 20 minutes. At one point, my sadness started creeping into my mind and I zoned out of the conversation for a few seconds, when all of a sudden I heard him repeating, “Mema! Mema!” and my heart stopped as I looked at him with a look of bewilderment.

“Excuse me sir, what did you just say?”

It was all a rush. He said, “Oh, that’s what she calls her grandmother.”

In that moment, the train finally opened its doors at Times Square and it was time to transfer. We both rushed out the door and through the throngs of people as I said “Wait! But sir!”

I couldn’t get my words out.

“I don’t know how to even tell you what I’m feeling, you see MY grandmother, well I call her Mema too and sir, she raised me.” And with tears in my eyes I tried to get it out like he was an angel here to keep me company in my loneliness. I said, “She’s dying and well you see, nobody calls their grandma Mema!”

As we were getting pushed by the throngs of people away from each other, he pressed a business card in my hand and shouted “Email me sometime if you need. There’s a building in Manhattan called the Mima! It’s beautiful!”

And that was the last I saw of him as I stood in shock, with a single tear rolling down my face. I turned to go and spent the rest of my walk in another time, another era. I felt as if I had someone by my side the rest of that evening, and as much as I had sorrow in my heart I felt it lifting.

I couldn’t help but force out a chuckle of disbelief with the realization, “It’s going to be OK. Mema will always be with me. And God just tried to remind me.” She lives in my heart, and she lives in other people. Just as she lives in all of you. I want all of you to try to find within yourself and within the great expanse of a world we live in that Mema will be right by your side every day.

Remember another quote from Rumi, who didn’t refer to death as such but as his wedding day with the Beloved:

“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”

Mema, I love you to the moon and back, when you make it to the moon, please come back.

Tara Jarvis, an aspiring writer living in New York by way of Florida, is an NYC Teaching Fellow in a special education public high school in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn and is studying for her master’s at Pace University. Email: