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An Extraordinary Life: A legacy of love and great Southern cooking

JOLIET – Tucked in a strip mall at 2777 Black Road in Joliet is restaurant that serves southern food and stands in tangible memory to a exquisite spirit.

Annette Mathis named Aisha’s Southern Cuisine after her daughter, Aisha Walker of Joliet. Aisha died Feb. 9, 2010, when she lost control of her car in a snowstorm on her way to work at M&M Orthopaedics in Lisle.

“She was a beautiful person,” Annette said. “She had a great personality. She loved to tell jokes and she was always the life of the party.”

But Aisha was more than a fun-loving woman. At the time of her death, Aisha was a foster mother to a preschool girl and active at Victory Cathedral Worship Center in Bolingbrook, which Aisha joined in 2006, Annette said.

“She loved kids, so she worked with the children’s ministry, the children’s church,” Annette said. “Once I joined, I did a lot of catering for the church because I could cook.”

Aisha often helped Annette with her catering jobs, even those outside the church, because Aisha loved to cook, too, Annette said.

“She had a few little side clients of her own,” Annette said. “I did southern food; she was into lasagna.”

One of Aisha’s specialties was meat pie, similar to lasagna, Annette said, but without noodles. Annette stepped up her catering when she was laid off, which prompted teasing from Aisha.

“She’d say, ‘My mother’s a caterer and I’m going to starve to death because she’s always working,’ ” Annette said.

Growing up, Aisha spent many hours with her grandparents while Annette worked. Aisha loved to help her grandmother garden, and quickly developed into what Annette called “an old soul.”

After graduating from Joliet Central High School, Aisha trained to become a medical assistant through Olympia College and worked for a temp agency. One job was near Annette’s workplace (Lucent Technologies) in Naperville, so mother and daughter often carpooled to work, Annette said.

Through it all, Annette nursed a dream: to open her own restaurant. When Annette waffled, Aisha encouraged.

“In catering, you know what you got to fix and how many people. When you’re done, you’re done,” Annette said. “[At a restaurant], you’re just waiting for the phone to ring.”

When the dream finally came true, Aisha wasn’t there to see it. She died three weeks before the grand opening on March 24, 2010.

“It was the happiest day of my life but also my saddest,” Annette said. “Because this was her dream for me.”

The dream was short-lived. The Bolingbrook restaurant, “Annette’s,” closed in September 2010, a few short months after it opened. Annette said she felt very disappointed.

“It started off really good and then things just didn’t work out,” Annette said. “So I took a year off.”

In the meantime, Annette said a cousin found the perfect place in Joliet for a restaurant; would Annette consider opening a second one? Annette said she would and had the perfect name: “Aisha’s.”

In the restaurant today hangs a photo of Annette and Aisha, a visible reminder to Annette of Aisha’s support and a tribute to an upbeat, loving life gone too soon.

“She was a beautiful person,” Annette said. “She will be forever remembered.”

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or dunland@shawmedia.com.

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