This is a story of a true Yankee by the name of Jean. And by that I mean the story of a kind, loving, generous, talented, and gracious women, who was a wonderful cook (especially when it came to baked beans and cream puffs), and who while embodying the old Yankee creed of “never complain; never explain” also never walked away from a promise, or a single person who needed help. Even in the last week of her life, when she was bed-ridden, she tried valiantly to figure out how she could make her famous baked beans which had been promised months ago for a fundraiser.
I knew her for only a few years out of her almost 91. I wish it had been more. I didn’t know all the details of her life (as a Yankee, she didn’t feel she needed to share everything), but I knew enough. I knew she had been born in the house in which she died – a lovely old New England farmhouse; the kind with the sheds built onto the back – and that she had lived there most of her life. I knew that she had married later in life and that her husband was a talented gardener. I knew that she hadn’t traveled much. I knew that she loved to read. I knew that she could play any song on the piano or organ as long as she had heard it once. The Human Jukebox, we called her. I knew that she generously came every week for the past 30 years to a local care home to play the keyboard for the residents. She was never stumped by a request and she always stayed to play hymns for the Mass that followed her time block, even though she wasn’t Catholic.
I didn’t know until her Memorial Service that she loved beer and fast cars. A true Yankee will always surprise you.
I also knew that she was one of my heroes: One day while we were having tea (oh, if only I had known about the beer!), she told me that when she was young, way before she was married, she found herself pregnant. She was living with her parents, she only had a secretarial job; she didn’t see how she could raise a child – and certainly in those days, it would have been a huge scandal. She called her cousin in South Carolina (and how she managed that when back then in this small town the phones were still on party lines, I don’t know) and said: “I’m in terrible trouble and I don’t know what to do.”
Her cousin told her to come to her, which she did. Her aunt and cousin arranged for her to have her baby daughter quietly and then arranged for an adoption. And no one other than her aunt and cousin knew. No one. Jean said she didn’t tell a soul, not her parents, not her sister. No one. She came home after a while and continued on living in this small town, doing secretarial jobs, playing the organ, providing her famous baked beans for church suppers, volunteering wherever she was needed, driving fast and having a beer with her friends.
She said that not a day would go by that she didn’t think of her baby daughter. A few years ago, right around the time I met her, a letter arrived asking if her daughter, who wanted to meet her, could contact her. That’s when she told me the story.
Not too long ago, Jean and her daughter did meet, and Jean rejoiced at having all those years filled in – at learning all the wonderful things her daughter had had in life: loving adoptive parents, a university education, trips to Europe, a lovely husband and family – all the while saying “I could never have given her any of that.” For the last couple of years of her life, Jean’s day wasn’t complete until she had a call, however brief, from her daughter.
For all the things that Jean said she could never have given her daughter, she did give one thing, apart, that is, from the silent, constant love she kept in her heart for over 65 years, and that was musical talent. Jean beamed when she told me that her daughter played the piano by ear, just like she did.
Jean and I not only almost shared a March birthday, but we also had very similar birthstone necklaces: a delicate aquamarine drop topped by a small diamond. We often ended up wearing our necklaces on Wednesdays at the Care Home, not because we were like teenage girls coordinating our wardrobes and accessories, but simply because we liked them. Jean always noticed and commented on our twinning with a grin.
As I was getting dressed to go to Jean’s memorial service, I had a dialogue with her running in my head. “Well, Jean – look: I’m wearing ‘our’ necklace just for you. I only wish I had my favorite earrings to go with it.”
I need to digress a bit about those earrings. Back before she was my daughter-in-law, my DIL gave me the prettiest pair of aquamarine chandelier earrings, which immediately became my favorite earrings of all time. I have worn them most days since as they seem to go with just about everything.
One morning this past autumn as I started to put them on, I could only find one. I had put (or thought I had put) them on the small tray where every night I put my “daily” jewelry: the chain with the blessed medals, my watch and my bracelets. I looked all over the bureau, under the bureau, even in the drawers thinking that one might have been open, and the earring might have slipped in. Then I moved to the floor and under the bed. Nothing.
There were three reasonable explanations: one was that while all the daily jewelry was in the tray, the earring had gotten tangled up in the chain that held my medals and I hadn’t noticed it when I put the chain on because with four medals already hanging on it, what’s one more earring? At some point the earring dropped off the chain, which meant it could be anywhere in, or out, of the house.
The second was that The Moose, who loves to hide things (I think he is also part squirrel) had picked it out of the tray and stashed it somewhere. Asking him where he put it got me nothing more than a huge smile, backed by big blue eyes.
And the third was that I was sliding into senility and had put it somewhere else myself. After the earring didn’t turn up in a few days I resigned myself to senility and the lesson that we shouldn’t get attached to material things.
About two weeks ago The Moose reached into the old sewing chest at the top of the stairs and handed an aquamarine chandelier earring to The Hunter, who gave it to me and asked if this was the earring that was missing. I gave The Startled Moose a big hug and immediately went to re-unite the pair. Only to stop short as there was no other earring in the drawer where I thought I had put the survivor. Now the mystery was how The Moose had reached into the top bureau drawer and come up with the second earring.
That is where things stood yesterday morning as I put on “our” necklace and regretted I didn’t have my favorite earrings to go with it.
I was about to take another pair of aquamarine earrings out of the drawer when something made me look one more time in the box that normally held my lost favorite pair. One of them was right there in the box, and one was just outside the box, almost out of sight, tucked under the bottom (cementing the senility explanation.)
I know I broke into a huge smile, and with a whispered “Thank you my friend,” put them on and headed out to the packed church. Where, as people one after another told their Jean stories, I not only learned about the beer and fast cars; I also learned that it doesn’t matter if you live your whole life in obscurity in a little rural town in the middle of nowhere; if you live it humbly and with love, you will touch more people than you can possibly imagine.
Which would probably surprise a great many politicians and celebrities.