Leona Schissler grew up on a farm in Summerhill, Pennsylvania, the eldest daughter in a large German family of 13 children.
After marrying in the early 1950s, she and her husband, John, moved to Maryland, though she always called the farm home, making sure to visit often.
The couple continued the tradition of a large family with 12 children of their own, seven sons and five daughters. “She did everything that a mom had to do times a thousand,” recalls Mary Richards, Leona’s daughter. “She was a homemaker, but she was also very active in our church.”
When her youngest two children were in elementary school, Leona was asked to watch a few children from the parish school after the family moved across the street. It grew into her operating a daycare for nearly 20 years. “Her faith and family were most important,” says daughter Betty Belk. “She lived a life where she was giving to others, whether it was her children or her neighbors.”
When John passed away from cancer in 1999, the couple had been married for 48 years. Leona eventually settled into a condo in Westminster and continued to live independently for the next 20 years.
She had just turned 92 in 2019 when her children started noticing declines in her health, including balance and memory issues. They consulted with Leona’s primary care physician, who ultimately suggested looking into hospice care.
“Hospice made a huge impact on her quality of life, just by looking at the different aspects of her medication, diet and sleep patterns,” says Mary. “The first two months were vital to get things back on an even keel for her.”
Being able to stay in her home was one of Leona’s biggest wishes—and one her children were determined to grant. In order to provide 24-hour-a-day care, the siblings created a schedule. Two of the out-of-town siblings each covered a week at a time, while local siblings covered the other weeks. A few families from church also helped when the siblings weren’t available.
“The comfort that it gave my mother just to be in her home is indescribable,” says Betty. “We knew [hospice was] a phone call away, and it took so much of the concern and the stress away for us. I highly recommend it; not only the care, but the opportunities it gave us. We had the freedom to let her live her life as much as she could at home.”
After a short adjustment period, Leona and her family were able to spend more quality time together: playing Scrabble and cards, reminiscing over old music and photographs, sharing stories from her childhood on the farm. She went to church every week and listened to Mass each morning on the radio.
“She really cherished family,” says Leona’s daughter, Rosalie Seeley. “Family time was very important. She liked to call her siblings and her children. She also would spend time in prayer, praying for others and the family.”
Rosalie appreciated how the hospice team cared for all aspects of her mother’s health. “They looked at the whole person—not just the physical aspect of what was going on with her, but also the mental and the spiritual, just making sure she, as a person, was taken care of.”
Leona’s health quickly declined after a fall in October 2020. “We were all thinking that there would be a recovery period, but by the next morning she was non-responsive and wasn’t able to speak,” says Mary. Realizing Leona was nearing the end of life, the family gathered to say goodbye in person, and those who were unable were given the opportunity to do so by phone.
With 42 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and a large extended family, Rosalie is sure her mother will be remembered for two distinct qualities: “Her love of life and her love for her family.”
Leona enjoyed knitting, sewing and crocheting. When her children were younger, she made clothes for them, and every year for Christmas, she gave each of her grandchildren an ornament that she had crocheted, Rosalie says.
Being a part of the Depression generation made Leona “green” before it was popular, says Betty. Her mother had a favorite saying: Use it up. Wear it out. Make do, or do without.
Leona enjoyed running. If she had to go into town, Mary remembers, she would alternate walking a block and sprinting a block. Betty recalls an incident that became a joke in the family. “One time, one of the neighbors didn’t know our mom that well. They saw her running down the street, and they thought there was an emergency,” she says. “She was older, and she was running around the block.”
Leona and John were role models for living their faith: being honest, virtuous, caring and kind to others, Betty says. “We definitely grew up in a family where our parents lived their faith, so that inspired us to do a lot of volunteering, as they did.
From the spring 2021 issue of DASH, BridgingLife’s community newsletter