Nicole M. Lopez-Mendez was like sunshine, her family said.
The 40-year-old Hobart woman's bubbly personality drew everyone in. She could make anyone smile, and she would have done anything for her two daughters.
Lopez-Mendez's death Sunday at the hands of her estranged husband, George Mendez, shocked her family, sister Lisa Lefner said.
The first sign of real trouble in Lopez-Mendez's 16-year marriage came in October, during a family trip to Key West, Florida, family members said.
Her husband, whom police say killed her and then turned a gun on himself, didn't seem to want her to have fun during her birthday celebration.
Family members worried, but they never expected they would lose their beloved "Knickknack," a nickname lovingly bestowed on Lopez-Mendez when she was a girl. She was the youngest of five siblings.
Lopez-Mendez was born on her mother's couch in Gary on Halloween 1977, putting her older siblings' trick-or-treating plans on hold, brother Brian Lopez said.
She was close to her three sisters and two brothers, said brother-in-law Kent Lefner, of Dyer.
"Every birthday, every holiday, every special occasion, the family would always gather to celebrate," he said.
Lopez-Mendez loved her daughters, Nena Lopez-Lewter, 23, and Adriana Mendez, 15, more than anything, family members said.
Support for Lopez-Mendez's daughters is now the family's priority, they said.
Lopez-Mendez was the first to welcome Kent Lefner to the family, calling him brother, he said.
She would pronounced it "brotha," with an A at the end, Lisa Lefner said. She referred to her sisters the same way.
"She's such a goofball," Lisa Lefner said.
Family members recalled a trip to Disney World, when multiple families caravaned to Florida and back. During a trip to County Line Orchard, they got lost in the corn maze and joked they'd have to survive on apples.
"We did an escape room, where I discovered Nicki was not very good at math," said niece Stephanie Vargas, of Munster.*
Vargas' husband, Alex, added: "It was an easy math puzzle."
"But that was the thing," Stephanie Vargas said. "She always made you laugh."
During a painting class at Wildrose Brewing Company in Griffith, Lopez-Mendez was having trouble painting a star, so Stephanie Vargas offered some instruction.
"She definitely did her own thing," Stephanie Vargas said. "I showed her, 'This is how you do it,' and she was like, 'Oh, OK,' and then she just mushed the paintbrush on."
Lopez-Mendez worked in the catering department at St. Catherine Hospital for 10 years.
"She loved the people she worked with, and they loved her," Stephanie Vargas said. "They've been flooding her social media page with pictures, memories, how much they miss seeing her."
Many people who have reached out have mentioned Lopez-Mendez's smile, Lisa Lefner said.
"She was always such a great person," she said.
Private funeral services are planned. The family plans to make a donation to St. Jude House, the family violence prevention center and shelter in Crown Point, in Lopez-Medez's name.
* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version. A story Thursday about a Nicole Lopez-Mendez misidentified her niece Stephanie Vargas. The Times regrets the error.
Recent arrests booked into Lake County Jail