A Mother’s Day Tribute

Janilee Rebelle

I was nineteen years old when we learned that my mother had skin cancer. Her health was failing quickly, and I remember feeling helpless. There was so much I wanted to do and say, but it was all happening too fast. I wanted to tell her what I was thinking and feeling, but I put on a brave face and tried not to lose hope.

As her fate soon became clear, I decided to put everything I needed to thank her for into an early Mother’s Day card, knowing that if I waited, I might not get the chance. She read it quietly, and we cried together. I apologized for being a bratty teenager and making her life harder than it had to be. She stopped me and said that having kids was the best thing she ever did in her life. She told me she wanted me to be happy and not let this hold me back. As much as I have tried to honor her last request, the loss of my mom has deeply affected me, as it has my family and those who loved her.

I had just begun college and my personal training career before she passed away. Within a couple of years of her death, I realized that helping moms stay healthy is what I am meant to do with my life. Since then I wake up each morning fueled by a mission to help moms stay active, eat well, and get in tune with their bodies.

“Mommy Fitness” has nothing to do with vanity, and everything to do with keeping families together. 

If I can help just one mother see her child get married, if one kid has her mom at college graduation, or a new baby gets to be held by his grandmother because she took care of her health as a result of Total Mommy Fitness, then I will have achieved success.

It’s been fourteen years since my mother’s untimely death. I know her better now than I ever did when she was alive. Many things I did not understand about her in my youth have become clear in recent years. I know her now as an enduring woman who overcame unbearable hardships to create a better life for herself and her family.

Though far from perfect, my respect for her has grown deeper as the layers of her life have been peeled back to reveal one of the most fascinating and complicated people I have ever known.

Janilee Rebelle was born in small town Iowa in 1949. Her family moved to California as a young girl, and then to Arizona where she became a mother and wife by the age of 18 — eventually a single mom to three children, a son and two daughters.

My mother was a woman of conviction, and a force to be reckoned with. Her charm and charisma could light up a room. She had striking beauty with a brilliant mind to match. Her passion and enthusiasm were magnetic, and she lived her life loudly. Whether you loved her or hated her, you could not ignore her.

She worked as a waitress, a secretary, a pet sitter, and other odd jobs — sometimes all on the same day. I have memories of standing with her in the unemployment line when times were tough. There are also many memories of driving by a homeless man sitting on a park bench reading a book, and stopping to give him a 20-dollar bill. Seeing surprise and joy on someone’s face gave my mom deep gratification.

She’d help families and animals in need by taking up collections of blankets, clothes, food, and supplies so big that they filled the bed of her pickup truck.

In our home, we had air conditioning, but no heating. We had two bathrooms, but only one that worked. She was someone who was content just having enough, and sharing the rest with those who had less.

My siblings and I were raised to believe that everything deserves compassion and a fair chance at life, no matter how small. One night my mom came home with a water pitcher full of tiny goldfish that had been used as centerpieces on the tables she was serving. The fish were going to be flushed down the toilet — instead, they lived for ten years in a 50-gallon tank. Another night she came home with mice that she had rescued from a glue trap — nothing was too insignificant to be saved. We rarely sought out an animal, but it was widely known that we wouldn’t turn one away. So, it was not unusual to find an iguana on our doorstep, a sick puppy or a litter of kittens in our driveway.

birdFor many years, we were actively involved in an animal rights group. A longtime friend of our family and founder of that group recalled how she met my mom and the lasting impression of their interaction, “I had a booth set up at the Tempe Arts Festival. I’ll never forget when your mother and you girls approached my table. The first thing your mom commented on was the poster at my booth. The graphic image had her both outraged and sad. She then asked about the handmade sweatshirt for sale for $20. She pulled out her checkbook and handed me a check for $100. My heart dropped. I was so moved.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to your house to see how you lived very sparingly. Money was obviously tight with her being a single mom raising you both and caring for a house of misfit animals. But somehow she made it, and she never complained to me about it. I think she would have given the shirt off her back to someone if they needed it. In the years, I knew her she was always my biggest donor. She probably had the least to spare and yet she gave the most. She was a hero in my book and always will be.”

The reason my mom could give so much was in part because she was extremely diligent and disciplined with her finances. I have never seen anyone with the ability to stretch a dollar as far as she could. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” was a phrase we heard often.

She kept a daily ledger and spent Sunday afternoons clipping coupons from the newspaper — my mother invented “extreme couponing.” Walking to the car from the grocery store she’d comb through the receipt calculating and beaming about how much she had saved. There were times when her strategic couponing even resulted in a negative price — the store actually owed her for purchasing the product!

mom and meShe was very creative in finding ways to spend time as a family on a tight budget. There were many afternoon bike rides to sporting events where we’d enter the stadium in the second half of the game after they’d stopped checking for tickets.

We spent summer days escaping the Arizona heat at the library. She was an avid reader and could devour a book. Nights were spent reading autobiographies into the early morning hours — only hardcover books because she thought paperbacks carried more germs.

She saved for our family road trips to Disneyland each summer by emptying the daily change from her purse into a 5-gallon glass jar at her bedside, which she’d eventually sort and roll by hand each year to buy our park tickets.

As much as she loved visiting California and spoke of wanting to live near the beach, she struggled to enjoy our summer vacations because she thought “the big one” (a giant earthquake sending California into the ocean) could hit at any moment. She’d predictably say, “I hope the big one doesn’t hit,” as we boarded Space Mountain.

Instead of expensive summer camps or childcare, my mom sent me to volunteer and work in environments where I was helping others. As a kid, I worked in a bicycle shop where stolen bikes were repaired and given to kids who couldn’t afford one of their own. At the end of that summer, I had worked enough to earn a BMX bike for myself as well as a beach cruiser for my mom to replace her old rusty one that had seen thousands of miles. Another summer vacation was spent working with a bird rescue organization. After that, we had many breeding seasons with baby birds living in our bathroom.

We regularly attended parades, free festivals, and countless concerts. Music was an important part of our family. A big stereo and her old record collection were a focal point of our home décor with framed ticket stubs from an Elvis Presley show that she attended. Where “normal” families would typically have a piece of art or family portrait hanging in the living room, we had a large framed picture of her with Robert Plant — she was his biggest fan.

me and momHer college best friend told me, “She was a woman I looked up to, admired and had more fun with than you can imagine. She was wild and crazy but in the most positive way! She was unique and amazing. She was who she was and didn’t care what anyone thought. I loved that about her!”

My mother lived a life of compassion, service and principle. She was unapologetically herself and taught me to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. She showed me that it was possible to be deeply flawed and beautiful at the same time. I have no doubt that the world is a better place because she was here.

This Mother’s Day I pay tribute to not just my mother, but all moms who selflessly sacrifice and give their best to ensure their kids are happy and healthy — the women who too often put their families’ needs before their own. As we celebrate all that you do this May, please soak in all of the love and pampering, and remember to care for yourself in the same way. There is only one you and the best gift that you can give your children is a happy, healthy mother for many years to come.


Happy Mother’s Day.



by: Tatum Rebelle

Tatum is the founder of Total Mommy Fitness, and has been helping mothers stay fit for over 10 years. She holds pre/postnatal fitness certifications from the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Her personal training certifications are from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Tatum holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology, a Master’s degree in Business Administration, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Performance Psychology. 

As a Mother’s Day gift she is offering a free 30 minute session to San Antonio moms. Email tatum@mbslife.com before the end of May to schedule.