In the days following Phyllis Gretzky’s passing, many news outlets chose one picture in particular to attach to their tributes of her life.
The shot shows her standing at a ceremony, one held to retire the number her son Wayne immortalized during an NHL career like no other. It captures the quiet, dignified pride behind her eyes as she takes in the spectacle, with Wayne and his son Tristan close behind her. It reveals her as she was, as protector and nurturer, as mother and grandmother, composed and complete.
Sometimes, a single picture does tell the whole story.
This picture, taken in Los Angeles in 2002, shows it is possible to embody all the qualities all parents aspire to embody. You look at it and you see Phyllis Gretzky and you believe that you can steer your family through the toughest of times and live your life the right way and have your hard work pay off spectacularly.
Although she has been universally acknowledged for decades as the hockey mom of all hockey moms, Phyllis was content with the background, never clinging to any of fame’s perks or passages. Having her family safe and sound, doing something that made them happy, was enough to keep the smile on her face.
If Wayne and his hockey-craving brothers got their competitive spirit and passion for the game from their father Walter, they got their grace, resolve and respect for privacy from their mom. Keeping her family grounded in the face of overwhelming hype was just one of the many good decisions Phyllis made for them.
Like all good mothers, she was perennially concerned for her kids, cheering her boys on as they trudged out to another arena to play another game that can be physically threatening to men much bigger than any of the Gretzky clan ever grew to be. But she could see that the men in her life had a connection to the sport that was all but buried in the blood, and so she supported them however she could.
And she put up with more than most. When money was tight, the family bought skates for the boys rather than new curtains for their living room. And when Brent was born in 1972, Walter was away with Wayne in the U.S. at a hockey tournament.
Â“Phyllis remembers that when I walked into her room in the maternity ward the first thing I said to her was, `We won, we won,’Â” Walter said of returning home to see his new son for the first time. Â“She looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘It’s a boy, Walter.’Â”
Phyllis was the one who drove her four boys to practices in the mornings, the one who cared as much for her daughter Kim’s development as a track and field star as she did about any of Wayne’s on-ice exploits.
She also got the family through not one, but two of Walter’s near-fatal experiences Â– first in 1964, when he was working as a lineman for the Bell Phone Co. and wound up having an accident that fractured his skull and left him comatose for a short time; then, in 1991, when he suffered a stroke and lost much of his memory. Phyllis was his nurse, his redeemer, the calm for a clan that had almost as many highs and lows over the years as they did goals and assists.
The end for Phyllis came three years after that picture was taken in Los Angeles, and just one year after cancer was first diagnosed to be tearing through her lungs. But although the ugly, hateful disease claimed her body at age 64, it only further entrenched her legacy as everyday citizen. She was someone not so iconic as to be immune from a monster whose cruelty targets saints and scoundrels alike. She was just like us in death, just as she was just like us in life.
Look again at the picture of Phyllis, Wayne and Tristan, the one taken in Los Angeles, and try pretending you don’t know anything about hockey. If you can do that, you can see how would be easy to assume it was she being honored, and not the greatest player in the annals of the game.
If you think about it the right way, Phyllis Gretzky was being honored that night in 2002.
And she will continue to be honored for a long time to come. Because the wisest among us know the best efforts of sons and daughters are really a spotlight on the souls of the ones who loved them most.
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