Her loved ones knew Beverly Jane Kovacevich was ready to go home. She was tired.
So, she wanted to know, why were her children just standing there around her bed? They needed to get her wheelchair, she said.
But she knew. She wasn’t going home to The Point in Biloxi, where she grew up, raised nine children, and doted over 22 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
They were all there on the last day of her life at the home of daughter Laurie Kuluz, along with a few close friends. Retired Catholic Bishop Roger Paul Morin said a prayer at her bedside.
Her family lined up to tell her how much she meant to them. Her children surrounded her bed as she took her last breath. Her oldest child, Carroll Kovacevich, held one hand and son Michael held the other.
She visited and talked with everyone who came to say goodbye before she succumbed to congestive heart failure at 91 years old.
Nobody lives forever, Michael Kovacevich told one of his daughters when he let her know she should come home for a final farewell. “Yeh,” Mrs. Kovacevich’s granddaughter said, “but MawMaw is supposed to.”
‘Family, faith and friends’
She was one of the last matriarchs of The Point, having grown up there during its glory days, when seafood factories and corner markets abounded. Her family owned DeJean’s Packing, a seafood plant.
She met her future husband, Ivan “Pancho” Kovacevich, after he moved to The Point as a 12-year-old. His family was among the Croation immigrants who made their way to the community, where The Slavonian Lodge remains a fixture and favorite gathering spot.
The Kovacevich’s nine children, born over a 10-year period, included three sets of twins. There were, in birth order, twins Carroll and Ivan, Beverly, twins Michael and Maria, Laurie, Bobby, and twins Jeffrey and Porfi.
Their mother and father instilled in them one lesson above all: “The most important thing you have in this world is your family. Love and protect each other and stay together,” Carroll Kovacevich said.
“My mom’s existence was built around her family, faith and friends — the three Fs. Nothing else.”
Heart of the family
Her children were a built-in entourage for Mrs. Kovacevich. Everywhere she went, they went. Every party they had, and there were lots of parties with such a big family, was for the adults and the kids.
She had the same best friends from the time she started school at St. Michael Elementary in Biloxi, Rita Pelaez and Una Broussard. They were known as the Three Musketeers. Mrs. Kovacevich rarely cried, but she broke down at Mrs. Palaez’s funeral in July.
“At Rita’s funeral,” Carroll Kovacevich said, “I think that’s when I realized mom wasn’t going to live forever.”
Ivan Kovacevich was the family disciplinarian, while his wife was its core. She was not judgmental and she encouraged her children’s individuality. She never compared them or played favorites, although they all liked to pick on her about who was her favorite.
The Kovacevich house was like Grand Central Station. A crowd was always on hand. She fed her own children and their friends, stirring up shrimp stew in a deep pot, frying chicken and, on special occasions, cooking up the most scrumptious dirty rice.
She loved music and played it throughout the day. After her funeral, her grandchildren turned on Patsy Cline. They knew the words to every song, thanks to their MawMaw.
As soon as their feet hit the floor on Saturday mornings, the grandchildren wanted to know, “When are we going to MawMaw’s house?”
One of them had a book printed and bound for her. It was titled, “MawMaw’s House: Where Cousins Go to Become Best Friends.”
Tiaras, boas and screwdrivers
She was the life of every party. If a crowd gathered around a table, Mrs. Kovacevich was likely seated there.
She loved to dance and always wanted to be the last to leave. She had some grand birthday parties. When she was 89 years old, she had five birthday cakes and celebrations.
She wore a tiara and a hot pink feather boa for one breakfast at Phoenicia Gourmet Restaurant in Ocean Springs.
Then she headed to Nashville with daughter Laurie Kuluz to visit a grandchild. They went to the Grand Ole Opry, where she was called to the stage and serenaded with “Happy Birthday” while wearing yet another tiara.
Mrs. Kovacevich rode out three hurricanes on The Point: the hurricane of 1947, Camille and Katrina. During Camille, she and the children wound up at her parent’s house next door because they had a generator. The children were lashed together with a rope for the walk as 200 mph winds howled in the dark.
For Katrina, family members also stayed in her parents’ former home, now owned by Michael Kovacevich. The first floor filled with water. Everyone, including neighbors rescued from the surge, wound up on the second floor.
Mrs. Kovacevich looked out the window and down at the surging water, thick with debris. “If I live to be 80,” she said, “I’ll never see another storm like this.” She was 77 years old at the time.
Last at the party
She lived for several years in a FEMA trailer in Laurie Kuluz’s driveway until her house was rebuilt. Mrs. Kovacevich never complained, her daughter said.
Her friends called her Big Bev. One of her grandsons said she was the queen bee of the hive.
In her final years, she spent week nights at daughter Laurie’s house and weekends rotating with Porfi, Maria and Beverly Kovacevich because her children did not want her staying alone at night.
“She always had to go home to The Point every day,” Laurie Kuluz said. “I mean, rain or shine. If it was raining, she’d say, “That’s what they make raincoats for.”
Her 90th birthday was the bash to end all bashes. More than 600 attended the party at The Slavonian Lodge. She wanted in the worst way for a band called The Swinging Medallions to play. And, of course, her family made it happen.
She sat swinging her hips to the beat in a wheelchair, sipping from a straw on her signature drink, a screwdriver. Four of her Sacred Heart Academy graduating class made it to the party, including her two dear friends.
Mrs. Kovacevich was determined to be the last to leave. And she was. Kuluz said they did not get home until 5:15 a.m.
A grand goodbye
Her family still can’t believe she is gone. Her funeral befitted her place in the hearts of her family and community.
Bradford O’Keefe Funeral Home delivered her casket, with her children in the procession, to her house. Her grandchildren were waiting there. They were expecting a hearse. Instead, a horse-drawn carriage pulled up.
They toasted their matriarch and followed the carriage the few short blocks to St. Michael Catholic Church, where she and her family worshiped, volunteered and celebrated so many special occasions.
She treasured the 106 letters that she received at her 90th birthday party from loved ones who told her what she meant to them, her daughter Beverly Forehand said. The letters are bundled and buried at her feet.
She was not ready to leave them, and she is not really gone at all. Her family is close, just as she always wanted.
Three of the children, Beverly, Carroll and Michael Kovacevich, shared memories of their mother with the Sun Herald at her house Thursday.
As Carroll Kovacevich left, he asked, “What time Sunday?”
“The Saints play at 12,” Michael said.
They will all be there, at Mrs. Kovacevich’s house, eating barbecue, drinking beer and cheering on the Saints.
And no doubt they will be sharing memories of the mother who made sure they would take care of one another when she no longer could.