Our Aunt Jeanette died last month at the age of 89. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday in December. Jeanette was my mother’s older sister by 7 ½ years and was mentally robust until a few weeks before her death when her health declined to the point she needed pain medication.
Aunt Jeanette was my mother’s guardian, mentor and protector growing up. There were just the two of them and after the Great Depression sent both parents scrambling for work she became the woman of the house. She was only thirteen.
Jeanette married when my mother was 16. My brothers and I would visit Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Bob in upstate New York and after my Uncle died she relocated to Maryland. Bob and I looked forward to visiting Jeanette each year when we drove north to visit family. She had a quick mind, plenty of insight and a good sense of humor.
When we heard of Jeanette’s death we made plans to drive up. Bob rented a car and arranged to stay with our friend Ned. My mother, Jeanette’s two children and three of my brothers were also on the way with their wives and some of their children.
The memorial service was so well done that I only needed one tissue to get through it. The Sermon by Pastor Amanda was witty, poignant and uplifting. Mom, brother Bob and cousin Grace read passages from the bible and we were all encouraged to sing a few hymns that Jeanette had chosen.
Jeanette was a bit of an enigma. I was hard pressed to find the words to describe her. She was opinionated but not judgmental, confident yet not overbearing, self-contained but not aloof, well informed and yet not too jaded. Listening to friends and family bear witness, I could see that others had noticed Jeanette’s paradoxes, too.
When it was my mother’s turn to speak she surprised all of us with a story about Grandma taking a job in Canada and leaving Jeanette in charge. None of us had ever heard of Grandma leaving her family to work for pay in Canada.
After the people on the program were finished they opened the podium to anyone who wished to speak. I hesitated, not sure I could be coherent and happily accepted Bob’s offer to speak on our behalf. He took my notes and spoke from his heart, ending with “I doubt she realized how much of an impact she had on all of us. Rest in peace Aunt Jeanette, we love you.”
Later, sitting with brothers, sisters, cousins and nephews at Cousin Brian’s house I asked Mom to retell her story about Grandma’s Canadian job. She told us that when she was five and Jeanette was thirteen, the family lost everything and had to move to a smaller house outside of town. They lost their cars, too and Grandma needed to find a job but there simply wasn’t anything within walking distance. There wasn’t any public transportation either. But there was bus service to Canada and so she became a demonstrator. Not the kind of demonstrator that walks around carrying a sign but the kind that hands out samples in grocery stores. She worked in Canada all week and took the bus back to New York on Friday.
At home Jeanette was in charge of Janice. Janice accepted Jeanette’s authority so completely that once when her mother brought home some candy, my mother declined to take it saying, “Just a minute, I need to ask my sister if it’s alright.”
Jeanette was Mom’s protector, too. Mom told a story about walking home with Jeanette and being followed by malicious men in a car. Jeanette took her little sister’s hand and stopped at many of the houses on the way but no one was home. Finally, they stopped at the home of the Judge and even though no one was home there either, it spooked their pursuers and they drove away. Then Jeanette took Mom across the back yards to their own home and they hid in there with the lights off.
In another story, their parents had gone out and the girls were asleep upstairs when they heard someone enter the dark house. Jeanette told Janice to stay in bed and be as quiet as she could while she grabbed a kitchen knife and stood at the top of the stairs. Fate intervened with the arrival of their parents, home from their evening out which sent the burglar running back out onto the street.
As we listened to my mother’s stories, many of us were thinking, “And then your father died when you and Jeanette were 13 and 20…”
It was sobering to think about those two sisters and the realities of their childhood. We never had a clue that Aunt Jeanette was called upon to be so strong at such a young age and my mother never showed any emotional scars from losing her mother and then her father to the Great Depression.
Thank you, Aunt Jeanette for protecting my mother as a young girl. You allowed her to have a childhood and blossom into a sweet, fearless woman. My mother might have been an insecure basket case and I doubt I would be who I am if it hadn’t been for you.