Growing up as the children of Tonya Puckett-Miller and Kirby Puckett came with privileges — skipping the lines at Disney parks, lots of travel, playful weekends at the cabin — and also the burden, once again earlier this month, of losing a parent at a young age.
When Catherine Puckett, 33, and Kirby Puckett Jr., 31, were barely adolescents, their famous baseball-playing father died of a massive stroke in 2006. On Dec. 26, 2021, their mother, divorced from Puckett and remarried, woke up with a headache found to be caused by glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer.
In January 2022, Puckett-Miller had surgery and lost the ability to talk. On Sept. 15, she died at home at age 58 in Mendota Heights.
At Catherine Puckett's home in west Bloomington that was already decorated for Halloween, she sat with her brother for a rare interview this week to honor the mother who left them with a sense of joy, a devotion to Christian faith and a commitment to charity. They were warm, mostly upbeat and open about everything — even when the questions veered into sensitive family topics.
"We were part of everything with our mom, our mother's whole world, and after our dad, we did everything the three of us," Catherine Puckett said, adding that their 14-year-old brother Tyson Miller became part of their group when he joined the family.
While their father became a rich superstar with two World Series victories for the Twins in 1987 and 1991, their mother built a charitable legacy that her children say they will continue full-time. They mentioned the Puckett Scholars at the University of Minnesota, the Kirby Puckett Eye Mobile through the Phillips Eye Institute and the Children's HeartLink 8 Ball Tournament.
"Off the field, she created his legacy," Catherine Puckett said of her mom.
Kirby Puckett Jr. stressed the importance of the Eye Mobile, which travels to underserved communities to provide screenings, something that could have helped both of his parents. The glaucoma that led to Puckett's blindness could have been mitigated if he'd gone for regular screenings, his son said.
An eye exam also could have yielded a telltale indication of glioblastoma in their mother and allowed for earlier treatment, he added.
Until cancer slowed her, Puckett-Miller's desire to help was persistent. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she made care packages with toothbrushes, toothpaste, masks, hand sanitizer and a note of Bible scripture. She drove around the Twin Cities, handing them out to strangers, a habit that concerned her children as the pandemic raged and vaccines weren't yet available.
"She was always giving even when she couldn't or shouldn't," Puckett Jr. said.
Catherine said her mother, who was remarried to the Rev. Melvin Miller, loved being the "first lady" of Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul. She also enjoyed her two granddaughters — Nairobi, who is 4, and Savannah, a gregarious 1-year-old.
When she was healthy, Puckett-Miller, known as Gammy, was eager to have Nairobi sleep over. They would play with clothes and makeup. Even after she got sick and couldn't speak, Catherine Puckett said Gammy lit up when the granddaughters came for a visit. "Watching her be a grandma is my favorite memory," said Catherine, nicknamed "Cat" by her mom.
In an enduring public image of Puckett-Miller, she wore sunglasses in a subterranean room at the Metrodome and sat stone-faced in July 1996 next to her then-husband Kirby as he solemnly announced to Twin Cities media that he had lost his sight and would retire from baseball.
That grim image is a contrast to the numerous family photos her children shared where Puckett-Miller showed a bright, easy smile.
During her marriage to Puckett from 1986 until their divorce in 2002, she appeared the impeccably glamorous baseball wife with a wardrobe full of designer clothes. In later years, her children said their mom dressed for comfort in sweats, jeans and flip-flops.
After baseball and their parents' split, their father faced legal troubles that dented his reputation as the ebullient, bouncy superstar. The children of Tonya and Kirby Puckett, however, said that their parents didn't bring those troubles to them.
"Even growing up after everything, she would not talk bad about him," Catherine said of her mom as Puckett Jr. nodded in agreement. "She didn't want us to view him in a negative way."
After the divorce, Puckett Jr. said he'd often overhear his parents ending phone conversations by saying, "I love you" to each other.
The children remember many good times, including the trips to Disney parks where Catherine said she went on the rides with her dad, who attempted to hide his identity under a baseball cap.
"We traveled a lot," Catherine said. "He was recognized everywhere."
Puckett Jr. and their mom did not enjoy amusement park rides so they did not partake.
They took annual trips to New York City where Puckett Jr. said he recalls the first time he looked out the window at the home of his father's agent and was awed by the vast city.
There were trips to the family cabin, water balloon fights, jumping — or being pushed — into the pool and lake fully clothed. Their highly competitive parents played air hockey games that their mom would win until their dad cheated, the children said.
They grew up in Edina where Halloween was a favorite holiday because their mom went all out with decorations and their dad gave out full-size candy bars to trick-or-treaters.
The Pucketts smiled and laughed as they giddily shared memories of their parents.
That's the resilience they learned from their mom, they said. When their father died, the family of three went into extended therapy together to navigate the sudden loss.
With their mom, watching her struggle and decline over the past months was difficult. The two share their mother's Christian faith; Catherine wore her mother's brilliant diamond-encrusted cross around her neck.
Puckett Jr. said he has been comforted knowing that his mother knew where she was going after her life ended. He said she encouraged his journey by saying, "I want to make sure your life is right so you can meet me there."